Review: My Neighbour Totoro – ★★★★★
This is an update of our original – miserly! – four-star review back in October 2022.
A magical stage reimagining of the Studio Ghibli classic, this puppet-fuelled My Neighbour Totoro does more than simply warm the cockles – it embodies an abundance of love and adventure.
The Barbican Theatre knew it was on to a winner with its global premiere in 2022 of the RSC’s adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro, faithfully transferred from screen to stage, which returned in 2023 and is booking through to 23 March 2024.
Hayao Miyazaki’s original film is a much loved Studio Ghibli classic, with a dedicated following – deservedly so, as it’s a truly heart-warming coming-of-age tale which combines fantasy and escapism with grounding realism. The RSC worked with original composer Joe Hisaishi in adapting the film for the stage, ensuring that the magical music is as central to this production as protagonists Satsuki and Mei and, of course, the titular Totoro.
Mei Mac is absolutely out-of-this-world as four-year-old Mei, giving one of the very best adult-as-child performances we’ve ever seen. Equally convincing and compelling is Ami Okumura Jones as older sister Satsuki. Together, these performances hold together the narrative backbone of a story which has been gently stretched from the 90 minutes of the film to nearly three hours here (including the interval).
It is a testament to the magnetism of those two central performers that they are not rendered instantly forgotten by the arrival of Totoro. For the first 30 minutes or so, Basil Twist’s puppetry – performed deftly, but with humour, by a talented troupe of puppeteers – only hints at what’s to come: delightfully energetic soot sprites swarm and flee, and then two slightly larger spirits arrive to tempt Mei into the hollow of the nearby camphor tree. So far, so sweet.
And then we meet Totoro. At first, he is recumbent, snoozing peacefully – but his size, filling an otherwise spare set, is a literal leap in scale. Later in the first half, in a piece of genuine stage magic, he emerges, upright, from the mist – it’s an almost unbelievable moment, which in itself practically justifies the whole production. Hearing the sounds of an awe-struck audience reacting to Totoro’s appearance is a joy in itself, a moment of true theatrical wonder.
My Neighbour Totoro is a truly great show, and a wonderful alternative to more saccharine offerings during the holidays. It will brighten the dark days of January and February too, bringing magic and wonder to anyone who sees it. At a time when there is so much negativity in the world, Totoro – the creature, and the show – is a shining beacon of joy and hope. See it!.
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