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Theatre Review: My Neighbour Totoro, Barbican Magical and reassuring

An astonishing Royal Shakespeare Company production of Miyazaki's classic animation reconnects WILL STONE with his inner child

My Neighbour Totoro
Barbican

 

ADAPTING everyone’s favourite Miyazaki film to stage is no mean feat. How on Earth does a production even begin to represent the giant cartoon hero, a sort of oversized rabbit, or the fantastical Catbus? Prepare to be amazed.

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has teamed up with composer Joe Hisaishi, who worked on the original soundtrack and scored many other films from the great Japanese animator and his Studio Ghibli, to create something as magical and unique in its own right.

Director Phelim McDermott, known for staging ambitious operas including Philip Glass’s Akhnaten and Satyagraha, and adaptor Tom Morton-Smith stay true to the whimsical imagination of the 1988 flick while giving it a whole new dimension for the stage.

Set in ’50s Japan, two sisters, Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) and Mei (Mei Mac), travel with their father Tatsuo (Dai Tabuchi) to their new home in the countryside while mother Yaksuko (Haruka Abe) is sick with an unknown illness in hospital.

The story centres around the playful fantasy world of the girls as they explore their new home and surroundings, meet their neighbours — including Totoro — and find magic and wonder in the most unlikely places.

All the creatures we meet are part of Miyazaki’s world of animism, the spiritual essence in all things, while Totoro represents a kami, a supernatural entity venerated in Shinto religion.

It is only the children who can see and interact with Totoro, no doubt originally intended by Miyazaki as a nod to the loss of innocence that comes with adulthood and a reminder to always be open to play.

Certainly the two protagonists, both in their 30s, do a commendable job in their child roles — reminiscent of US comedy series Pen15, where Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play thoroughly convincing adolescent versions of themselves.

But it is Tom Pye’s tremendous set, which has a live band and singer Ai Ninomiya perform atop treehouse-like platforms, and Basil Twist’s breathtaking puppetry, from the Totoros of varying sizes to the soot sprites and even the flock of funny hens, not to mention the Catbus that is in danger of knocking out the front row, that leave the most indelible mark.

The synergy of the on-stage puppeteers, who display expert and inventive command of their furry friends, sparks both awe and hilarity in equal measure.

Yet there’s also heartrending backstory behind all the fun — Tabuchi displays tremendous warmth and tenderness in a father struggling to look after his children and keep them in good spirits in the face of their mother’s uncertain fate.

The enduring message then, like all things Studio Ghibli, is the importance of hope, love, family, friendship, play and imagination.

Runs until January 21 2023. Box office: (020) 7870-2500, barbican.org.uk.

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