12 October 2022
MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (Barbican Theatre) Review

I first saw the film in the late 1990s, almost 10 years after it first came out.  Everyone loved it, and what’s not to love?  Two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, are moved by their dad from Tokyo to the middle of nowhere in the countryside where their mother is recuperating in the hospital.  Whilst playing in the woods, Mei encounters the spirit of the forest, and things get extra adorable from there on.

It was hard to imagine how the film would translate onto the stage, even with RSC at the helm.  Obviously puppetry would have to be involved, but it was impossible to imagine the scale and the quality of this production.  The set is the stuff of legends (Harry Potter with all its magic pales in comparison), and the puppetry is breathtaking, courtesy of Basil Twist in collaboration with The Jim Henson Company.  And Big Totoro…  the entire audience, old and young alike, squealed with delight at his first appearance.  Aside from there being 3 Totoro creatures (Little, Medium, Big, as is the case in the film), there are at least 4 different versions of Big Totoro.  Because of the size and movement, it was clearly not possible to have just one [creature? puppet? form?] that suited every scene.  Equally delightful was the Cat Bus, although done very different from Totoro(s).  At first I was disappointed, but I can see why it made sense to do it that way.

Although the film is 90 minutes long, the running time for this production is 3 hours (including interval).  It does drag on a bit, at least until Big Totoro appears.  There are a lot of gaps and pauses that are simply unnecessary.  That said, there are also a lot of quietly beautiful moments (such as when flowerbeds appear), but those almost feel not long enough.  The balance between the two seems a little off, and I hope it gets adjusted as the run continues.  The live band and on-stage singer are a lovely touch, but there are a few places where the singing goes on for too long whilst nothing else happens, so it feels a bit like an afterthought to buy time needed to adjust the set.

The acting is fine, but then people won’t be flocking to see this play for the acting.  Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones as Mei and Satsuki certainly provide ample energy to keep the audience engaged, especially Mac.  Everyone else does a fine job as supporting cast.

As a lovely gesture by the production company, Totoro comes out for the curtain call with the actors.  Everyone in the audience was on their feet and simply revelling in joy.

I would definitely see it the second time just for the puppetry if it was shorter.  At 3 hours, I won’t be doing that.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £10 (for the puppetry).

NOTE: There were a lot of younger viewers in the audience (in fact, Barbican lists this production suitable for children as young as 6 years old at regular performances).  I have my doubts about children that young being able to behave suitably at a 3-hour slog, brilliant puppetry notwithstanding.  Nevermind youngsters, we ended up sat next to a mum with two unruly kids of about 11-13 who talked incessantly at full volume non-stop from curtain-up, and no amount of shushing was going to make them stop or their mum do anything about it.  It got so bad, we complained and were moved by the ushers in the interval (though I do feel terrible for everyone else around those kids who had to sit there for the remainder of the show).  I hope that most children would be far better behaved, but one might have to be prepared for this level of nonsense when considering this production.

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