Review: My Neighbour Totoro – ★★★★
A magical stage reimagining of the Studio Ghibli classic, this puppet-fuelled My Neighbour Totoro warms the cockles, but falls just short of greatness.
As panto season approaches, theatres wishing to eschew Widow Twanky, Buttons, Ugly Sisters et al. nevertheless dream of putting on family-oriented shows which embody the warm-wishes which get us through the coldest of seasons. Thus, for every Mother Goose or Dick Whittington, you’ll find a Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol (sans Dolly), a Hex, or a Wind in the Wilton’s (groan).
The Barbican Theatre beats them all to it with this global premiere of the RSC’s adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro, faithfully transferred from screen to stage, which is booking through to the end of January – though tickets for the early shows have been selling like hot cakes!
They’re on to a winner, too. Hayao Miyazaki’s 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 have worked with original composer Joe Hisaishi, 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, perhaps a tad indulgently, has been 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: amusingly 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 twee.
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.
What’s not to love, eh? Well, whilst My Neighbour Totoro is undoubtedly a great show, it has its shortcomings. Beyond the two leads, the supporting characters feel perfunctorily written and performed. The running time feels like a stretch – younger audience-members may be taxed by some of the quieter, less propulsive moments. And Totoro himself is something of a momentum stopper – his big moment comes perhaps three-quarters of the way through the first half. There’s no topping that. The second half really feels like it needs a big ‘wow’ moment, and without it, the narrative somewhat drifts towards its conclusion.
Cards on the table: when My Neighbour Totoro tickets went on sale, we got confused with the stage adaptation of Spirited Away (adapted and directed by John Caird) which we’d heard great things about. We’d still love to see that show in Europe, and hopefully the inevitable success of My Neighbour Totoro will pave the way for that (and, who knows, even more Studio Ghibli adaptations!).
If that happens, hopefully the pricing can be adjusted to accommodate the supposed intended audience for these shows (Barbican notes that the show is for those aged six and above) – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a stalls ticket for less than £80, which makes for an expensive theatre trip with a family. A limited number of Day Seats are available online each day from 10am, priced at £25 – but it’s not clear how many of these tickets will be on offer. The message to ‘save the surprise’ by not sharing pictures of the production is well-meaning – but if people can’t afford to see the show at all, it feels a bit rich.