Peer pressure finally gets me along to the bewitching delights of My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican
“He was big and round and I fell asleep on his belly. I’m not lying”
The charms of Hayao Miyazaki’s films have long eluded me, despite the best efforts of many to convince me otherwise, I liked Spirited Away well enough but that scratched that itch definitively for me and so I wasn’t too bothered by any of the other Studio Ghibli films I saw. I’ve known for a while though that I’m in the minority here, as evidenced by the extraordinary pre-opening box office success of My Neighbour Totoro, from executive producer (and film’s original composer) Joe Hisaishi and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The show was basically sold out before opening night and a pretty much complete set of rave reviews made it an even hotter ticket.
So it has taken me this long to be able to procure a pair of affordable returns and crucially, also overcome my innate dislike of giant puppets, to see what all the fuss is about. And you can see why has done so well, Tom Morton-Smith’s emotionally forthright adaptation hits the sweet spot of family shows in talking with its young audience instead of down to and Phelim McDermott’s direction is a series of mesmerising flights of fancy, utilising ingenious puppetry by Basil Twist to explore the limitless reaches of a child’s imagination whilst also grounding it in some of the harsher notes of reality – it’s an utterly charming confection.
Sisters Mei and Satsuki have been moved to the Japanese countryside by their dad Tatsuo, as their mum is ill in hospital and has been for a long time. Satsuko is the elder and so is aware of some of the gravity of what it happening to their family but at just 4, Mei is swept up in the adventures of living somewhere new and her magical new friend the wood sprite Totoro, who is imaginary, right? Whether that’s true or not is kinda besides the point, Totoro provides a route of wondrous escapism into the forest and when things get rough and the relationship between the sisters is tested, it also offers the potential for healing with such mature, impactful storytelling .
It could so easily tip the wrong way into saccharine treacliness (you have to hope there’s never a Hollywood version) but the tone observed here is just right. The show is visually stunning – Tom Pye’s set is an ongoing treat in which the surprises of the puppets (and they are many…the choice not to release photos is such a canny one) are endless, and Hisaishi’s score – performed by a band and singer (Ai Ninomiya) – is lots of fun. Performances excel across the board, from Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones as the sisters to the tireless puppeteers who embody whole worlds of fantasy, and the cumulative effect is simply magical, as testified by the rapt attention of the children in the audience, even with a hefty running time. Worth stalking the website for returns or checking for day seats.