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The Crack Magazine

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My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican

My Neighbour Totoro, Barbican, London

This RSC stage adaptation of the beloved Studio Ghibli ecological fable maintains all the wonder, arresting child-logic and melancholy of the 1988 original anime.

It’s the 1950s and two sisters, the four-year-old Mei (Mei Mac) and her ten-year-old sister Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) have been moved by their father Tatsuo (Dai Tabuchi) from Tokyo to the countryside to be closer to the hospital where their seriously ill mother Yasuko (Haruka Abe) is being treated.

They are greeted with kindness by the locals, especially ‘Granny’ (Jaqueline Tate) who helps Tatsuo look after the two girls. Meanwhile Satsuki tries to befriend the painfully shy local boy Kanta (Nino Furuhata). Dozing in the forest, Mae makes some friends of her own, a duo of furry rabbit-like forest sprites and a huge owl-meets-bear spirit creature, she calls Totoro.

Director Phelim McDermott skilfully handles the gradual encroachment of the supernatural into the little girls lives, bolstered by Tom Pye’s gorgeous production design which imbues the family’s new bucolic idyll with a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’-style otherworldliness.

The script sticks very closely to its anime source material, although the role of Mei and Satsuki’s mother has been enlarged. Despite the lengthier running time, a plot that is light on events (there’s no concrete antagonist to speak of – rather unthinking modernity) and languid pacing, the children in the audience were enraptured.

The puppets, designed by Basil Twist and realised by the Jim Henson Creature Shop are awe-inspiring: Totoro is a furry galumphing thing of wonder, and the appearance midway of a Certain Beloved Character in a recreation of the film’s most iconic scene, inspired audible gasps then cheers from the audience.

Adapting from his own original work composer Joe Hisaishi’s eclectic score mixes jaunty propulsive jazz with sweet J-pop balladry, the latter beautifully sung by Ai Ninomiya. In one of many ingenious design touches, the band are suspended over the action at the rear of the stage, like a watchful spirit chorus.

The cast are uniformly excellent: Dai Tabuchi subtly conveys the stress behind dad Tatsuo’s upbeat nerdiness; Ami Okumura Jones is touching as the necessarily precocious big sister Satsuka, thrust into taking on more than her share of domestic duties and parental care; while thirtysomething actor Mei Mac uncannily channels a four-year-old’s roly-poly physicality and occasional brattiness as Mei.

My Neighbour Totoro is playing at the Barbican Centre until January 21st – it’s sold out but a transfer has been mooted.

David Willoughby

Follow David on Twitter @DWill_Crackfilm

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