There’s a reason why they’re keeping Totoro under wraps in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of the hit 1988 animation. The awe the original film conjures is translated into anticipation into just how puppet designer Basil Twist creates the lovable creatures on the stage. The reveal is a mesmerising kind of magic which really does have to be seen to be believed – quite fitting, given the story that’s being told.
If you’re unfamiliar with said story (and it makes for a far better experience if you have seen the Japanese film before seeing the play), it follows the adventures of sisters Satsuki (played here by Ami Okumura Jones) and Mei (Mei Mac) once the pair and their father Tatsuo (Dai Tabuchi) move to the countryside to be near their hospitalised mum Yasuko (Haruka Abe). As the children make themselves at home, they stumble upon the mystical creature Totoro and his friends.
From the outset, Phelim McDermott’s version of the tale is formidably faithful, down to the ‘title card’ screen concealing the stage, which springs into life at the very beginning. The initial scenes adopt the 2D frame style of its source material, as the car is guided along the countryside, before the real thing drives onto the set. As ever, the Barbican’s grandiose stage works well for the towering forest, and the giant house complete with its rotting wooden beam at the front. Mac nails Mei’s stubborn pout with her hands on her hips, and Okumura Jones performs Satsuki with a pleasant maturity, at times even parenting her father as the demands of his university job cause him to become easily flustered.
Considerably longer than the almost 90-minute running time of the film, Oppenheimer writer Tom Morton-Smith makes good use of 2 hours and 45 minutes to world build and flesh out characters. Unspoken details quietly acknowledged in the animation are explored in depth, and far more overt. The shy and socially awkward Kanta (Nino Furuhata) is assumed to be lovestruck by Satsuki in the movie, yet the lack of a proper acknowledgment means the enigmatic nature of his character doesn’t do Kanta justice. Now, Morton-Smith all but confirms this, as he receives advice from Hiroshi (Michael Phong Le) on how to talk to girls, and grow up gracefully when life seems just a little bit too fast.
Graceful is a pretty good description of the nature of McDermott’s My Neighbour Totoro. Puppeteers cloaked in all-black glide across the stage between scenes to Joe Hisaishi’s original, soaring soundtrack (with beautifully performed vocals from Ai Ninomiya). There’s the occasional stumble – the bus driver going a bit too far beyond the stencil outline of the vehicle, and a spider puppet falling to the ground – but if anything, it makes it all the more human and endearing.
When Tatsuo breaks down over his poor wife, the same puppeteers embrace him as the scene changes around him. Similarly, when Granny (Jacqueline Tate) shares details of her sister’s passing with Mei, the youngster gives her a hug and expresses sympathy. It’s a gentleness to the more emotional, delicate subject matter in the first act which primes us for the troubling, upsetting second, when Mei goes missing and Yasuko’s condition seems to have worsened.
Delicately handled and lovingly adapted, My Neighbour Totoro reignites a child-like wonder, and leaves you with a smile as wide as Totoro’s.
My Neighbour Totoro is now playing at the Barbican Centre until 21 January 2023. All performances are currently sold out, with individuals advised to keep checking the website for returns.
Audio described performances are scheduled for 15 December, 7 January and 18 January. The first two of these dates will also be British Sign Language-integrated (BSL) and relaxed performances.
Captioned showings will take place on 8 December, 15 December, 7 January and 18 January.
Production Images: Manuel Harlan © RSC.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.