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  • Catherine Flutsch

My Neighbour Totoro: Royal Shakespeare Company

★★★★

Review: My Neighbour Totoro, Joe Hisaishi and Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Improbable and Nippon TV. On at the Barbican Theatre until 21 January 2023. Buy tickets here.

Studio Ghibli fans all over the world were thrilled when the theatrical adaptation of cult animation film My Neighbour Totoro was announced. The animated film Totoro was released in Japan in 1988. Since then it has gained an international cult following, and is often included in lists, compiled by industry insiders, of the best films of all time.

Film still - Mei and Satsuma wait at the bus stop with Totoro.

My Neighbour Totoro is director Hayao Miyazaki’s love story to nature. Set in the Japanese countryside, the story follows sisters, Mei and Satsuki as they turn to nature, to the forest on their doorstep, for comfort.

Film still - Mei and Satsuma rest with forest spirits.

Watching the film is like a lesson in bucolic mindfulness – a meditation on the contrast between the vastness of an ancient forest and the tiny details of everyday life.

Film still - Mei discovering her new house and garden.

It is this slowing of time, coupled with composer Joe Hisaishi’s beautiful film score, that give Totoro its unique appeal. Adapting this much loved setting to the stage is a challenge.

Photo by Manual Harlan.

I think everyone who sees this production will agree that the most successful aspect of this play is the recreation of the magical forest spirit, Totoro. A huge amount of experience and expertise has gone into the creation of the puppets; with three international puppetry companies, including Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop, collaborating to reproduce Totoro, the other spirits and the Cat bus faithfully.

Film still - the Cat Bus, Totoro and Satsuki.

It is quite an extraordinary experience to have the giant forest spirit, Totoro, come to life on the stage - capturing all the sense of wonder and delight of the film. For me, seeing Totoro on stage was worth the ticket price alone.

Mei Mac plays Mei.Photo by Manual Harlan.

Everything in this production has been done with the highest levels of creativity, inspiration and dedication. The sets are absolutely magnificent and the live music, adapted from the film score, in collaboration with composer Joe Hisaishi, is beautiful and atmospheric.

Photo by Manual Harlan.

For me, though, some aspects of this production were less successful. Capturing the sense of the slowness of time was always going to be difficult. The beautiful stillness of the film, for me, became time dragging on stage. At almost 3 hours long, it did start to feel like a very long show – even with a 20 minute interval, it’s a long time for young children to sit still.

Photo by Manual Harlan.

I should also mention that while the actors who played main characters Mei (Mei Mac) and Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) did an extraordinary job, I felt the other characters were less convincing – I didn’t ever forget that I was watching actors act.


Mei Mac, plays Mei, and Ami Okumura Jones plays Satsuki, at rehearsal.

There is a lot to love in this production of My Neighbour Totoro and for die hard Ghibli fans, it’s a must see. But for those who want to experience Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli magic (or save money) watching the film, available on Netflix here, is your first port of call.

 

If you enjoyed reading this review, you may enjoy reading my other pasts about Japanese culture here. You might also enjoy reading my review of the Hallyu exhibition at the V&A, which you can find here and my other Royal Shakespeare Company reviews here.

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