If you haven’t seen the film, the story is about two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, who move with their father away from bustling Tokyo to be closer to their sick mother in hospital. Then the sisters are drawn into a special world of spirits and sprites, something along the lines of Alice in Wonderland. The film is iconic, so much so that Studio Ghibli’s logo includes the Totoro. So how does one go about making an iconic piece of cinema on stage?
At first glance, it’s not a musical, not in the traditional sense. Joe Hisaishi’s music is there throughout the show, performed in English and Japanese by singer Ai Ninomiya. It more closely resembles a play with music, but even that description doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s the film, on stage, and done well. I’ve seen some very bad attempts at this recently and those production teams should take note from this RSC and Improbable Theatre co-production.
The magic realism begins immediately with the show’s title- fluffy and bouncy, misspelled and then corrected- and we are transported to the rural Japanese countryside where we meet all our key cast of the living world. We all wait with baited breath to meet the forest spirits.
The charm of Studio Ghibli doesn’t go amiss, down to how the personalities of each of the creatures Mei and Satsuki encounter move, ripple and bounce. There are a lot of scene changes between very short scenes, completely intentional, which recreate moments from the film very well, down to Totoro emerging from the mist on a rainy evening. The staging sticks to the original story fairly religiously, but teases out some of the more heartbreaking scenes with delicacy, which doesn’t change the minutia but moves us all the more. Part of the charm of Ghibli’s work is the journey the films take the viewer on. Improbable have resituated My Neighbour Totoro to the stage fairly seamlessly.
Mei Mac plays a charming and cheeky 4 year old Mei. All the cast and puppet masters are a delight to watch, let alone the magnificent Jim Henson’s Creature Shop reimaginings that left every audience member gasping with excitement at the sight of the cat bus, the soot sprites, and Totoro itself. Just go and see it. It’ll be money well spent.
- Adapted by Tom Morton-Smith
- Directed by Phelim McDermott
- Additional Lyrics by Hilmi Jaidin and Tom Morton-Smith
- Music by Joe Hisaishi
- Cast includes; Mei Mac, Ami Okumura Jones, Dai Tabuchi, Haruka Abe, Nino Furuhata, Michael Phong Le, Kanako Nakano, Jacqueline Tate, Haruka Kuroda, Susan Momoko Hingley
- The Barbican
- Until 21st January 2023
- 7pm (2pm matinees available), Running time: approx 2 hrs 45 mins (including interval)