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My Neighbour Totoro review - a monster hit balanced with a love letter to Studio Ghibli's classic family film

THE RSC’s production of My Neighbour Totoro is more than an adaptation – it’s a love letter to the classic anime film that has brought joy to families around the world.

Converting the Studio Ghibli fantasy film for the stage is one of those challenges that could have gone wrong in so many ways, but the attention to detail, the superb puppetry skills and stunning live music are more than equal to that challenge. And when you add the extra ingredient – live actors – the tale of two sisters and their adventures with fantastic creatures is given heightened emotion; there’s a much deeper connection with the on-stage characters than with their animated counterparts.

My Neighbour Totoro. Photo: Manuel Harlan (61122556)
My Neighbour Totoro. Photo: Manuel Harlan (61122556)

Now, we confess to being big fans of Studio Ghibli in our house (Netflix is still showing a number of the films for those who have never experienced the delights). We love them because the films avoid the sickly sweetness of Disney, instead creating wondrous settings and creatures that are a bit more three dimensional and, if we’re being honest, completely strange.

Totoro, one of Ghibli’s best-loved creations, is a gigantic furry rabbit-like creature straight from Japanese folklore who lives in the woods under a large tree. It’s this creature who brings so much joy to sisters Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) and Mei (Mei Mac) after they move out of Tokyo with the father (Dai Tabuchi) to be closer to the hospital caring for their sick mother (Haruka Abe).

Satsuki is a young schoolgirl and Mei, as she tells everyone, is proud to be four years old. Both are played by adults who capture the loud energy of the films. But as well as being excitable, through the writing of Tom Morton-Smith and the direction of Phelim McDermott, the sisters are shown to be tender and loving, as well as full of curiosity, fun, energy and concern for their mother.

Mei Mac is particularly brilliant, capturing the movements of a young child not quite in control of their body, yet still determined to keep up with big sis. Her encounters with the wonderful (and huge) Totoro puppets are so enjoyable to watch, accompanied by the live band located high up in the trees that form part of the fantastic set. That music, by Joe Hisaishi who also composed the film score, plays a central role in creating the atmosphere on stage with singer, Ai Ninomiya, even entering the action on occasions.

It’s hard to choose a highlight from Totoro – each carefully crafted scene is given a touch of magic, a moment of tenderness, serenity or humour.

Manuel Harlan (61122558)
Manuel Harlan (61122558)

A lot of those moments involve the small army of ninja-like puppeteers who are unbelievably good.

From giving Totoro an inquisitive and cheeky personality (I wonder who gets the task of flopping around his giant tongue?) and turning chickens into comedy sidekicks, to recreating soot sprites, the Cat Bus and beautiful puppet-only scenes (the opening of the second half is a hoot).

They were utterly brilliant throughout and responsible for the majority of the biggest laughs.

My Neighbour Totoro is not an exact adaptation of the film. It couldn’t be. But a huge amount of imagination and some very clever thinking – as well as those amazing puppetry skills – gives the audience exactly what they want – a ‘real life’ version of a charming film.

We can’t wait to see it again… in Stratford?

  • My Neighbour Totoro is at the Barbican until 21st January. Tickets are sold out but there may be returns.

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