Review: My Neighbour Totoro


by Mike Matthaiakis

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of the iconic Studio Ghibli film “My Neighbour Totoro” is a remarkable achievement that pays homage to the original while offering a fresh and emotionally impactful experience. Tom Morton-Smith’s adaptation, accompanied by Joe Hisaishi’s enchanting music, captures the essence of Hayao Miyazaki’s fantasy animation and elevates it into a beautiful theatrical production.

Directed by Phelim McDermott, the play doesn’t aim to be an exact replica of the film, but rather a unique interpretation that preserves the magic and wonder of the story. The adult portrayals of sisters Satsuki and Mei, played by Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac, add a layer of cartoonish excitement that ultimately wins over the audience. Mac’s portrayal of the younger sister is particularly noteworthy, transforming into an almost infantile state during pivotal moments.

The relationships between the characters are tenderly portrayed, especially the dynamic between the two sisters and their father (Dai Tabuchi), who yearn for their hospitalized mother (Haruka Abe). The incorporation of music as a central element, with a live band and singer Ai Ninomiya, adds to the drama’s emotional depth. Dialogue-free scenes filled with musical and visual storytelling create a meditative and magical atmosphere.

The set, designed by Tom Pye, unfolds like origami, with a central revolve used creatively to bring the pages of a graphic novel to life. The drama is infused with Shinto and Japanese folklore, offering a narrative experience distinct from Western fairytales. The blurred line between dreamworld and reality, coupled with the emphasis on children’s imaginations and nature, gives the production an almost spiritual energy.

The puppetry by Basil Twist is a highlight, bringing farm animals and otherworldly creatures to life. Soot sprites, portrayed as black pom-poms on sticks, move in mesmerizing formations, while Totoro is depicted as formidable, rumbling, eerie, comic, and endearing. Catbus, a giant inflatable with laser eyes, adds to the dreamlike quality of the production. The puppeteers, functioning as a human murmuration, showcase metatheatrical touches that are witty, original, and rooted in physical comedy.

While the play may not boast Disney-level special effects, it dazzles with its magic realism. The absence of a typical Disney ending adds to its charm, emphasizing the uncertain future while highlighting the enduring themes of kindness, hope, and community. “My Neighbour Totoro” encourages audiences to believe in the magical and unseen aspects of life and affirms that listening to each other’s stories is indeed “simply the best use of our time.”

At the Barbican, London, until 23 March, 2024