Totoro on Stage

By Helen McCarthy.

I’ve seen a Catbus live onstage not twenty feet away. I’ve watched Totoro fly over the heads of a packed audience, all gasping, laughing, cheering and entirely caught up in childlike acceptance of magic. I’ve seen the conventionally invisible puppeteers and their rods and strings and wind machines and skill and grace and delicacy. I’ve been transported by music I know by heart, translated and augmented for a new medium.  In 55 years of London theatre-going I have never left an auditorium amid a crowd so united in laughter and the joy of life.

It’s a strange feeling, writing about My Neighbour Totoro, to write anything but ‘Hayao Miyazaki’ after ‘Director’. But Phelim McDermott has form with musical theatre, although not precisely in this area. He and designer Tom Pye worked on Akhnaten and Aida at the English National Opera. Now McDermott’s physical theatre company Improbable bring their circus skills and inventive choreography to anime, using Hisaishi’s music and Miyazaki’s story as a crossing point between two- and three-dimensional worlds.

This audience obviously knew the bare bones of the story from the original movie, either as a fan or through watching with a child. Two sisters, nine-year-old Satsuki and Mei, four, move to the countryside with their father to be nearer to their sick mother’s hospital. Their new neighbours are not just the goodhearted locals who work on the farms near their house, but the ancient spirits of the woodlands around it. In this unusual community, the girls face and deal with changes and challenges, strengthening their own relationship along the way.

The process of transforming that simple story from a luminously beautiful and profoundly moving two-dimensional cartoon to a musical stage show with actors, puppeteers, complex scene changes and two scene-stealing elementals almost too big for the stage, is fraught with difficulty. Whole Hog Theatre confronted similar problems head on in 2013, staging Princess Mononoke in London with a British/Asian cast and crew, and puppets and scenery recycled from junk. Director Alexandra Rutter’s production was a magical amulet hanging on a shoestring, justly feted in London and Tokyo. The RSC and Improbable, with Joe Hisaishi and Toshio Suzuki, have captured their own version of that magic.

The cast is a mix of Asian and Caucasian performers, The actress playing Mei, Mei Mac, also played the lead in Princess Mononoke, making her the only actress to have played two Miyazaki heroines on the London stage. Satsuki is played by Ami Okumura Jones, who trained at East 15 Acting School in Loughton. So this is a production about building bridges: between past and present, Britain and Japan, cinema and stage, humans and nature, magic and reality, music and movement, childhood and adulthood, laughter and tears, fear and hope.

My Neighbour Totoro is the jewel in the crown of the Ghibli canon, and there are key elements for which Ghibliophiles demand respect. Those elements are all here, from the solemnity of the fox god whose shelter the girls share in a downpour and the Jizo statues whose protection little Mei seeks when she’s lost, to the enormous white knickers that flash under Mei’s pink dresses and the straw hat she loses in her first pursuit of the Totoros. The life of a farming community, the immensity of the forest, the country bus stop in the pouring rain, are all here. They’re not exactly as you saw them in the film, but they’re exactly as you feel them there. The music, beautifully reworked, is performed in the treetops above the action, present yet ethereal, only soloist Ai Ninomiya appearing onstage.

The opening sequence of both film and musical is the arrival of the Kusakabe family, in a van loaded with the trappings of their life in Tokyo, at a rickety old farmhouse with suspect woodwork and soot sprite squatters. Onstage, the ancient theatre tradition of layers of moving flats to mimic a multiplane camera make the transition from a cartoon journey to a real van with Mei and Satsuki in the back seamless.

The susuwatari, the soot sprites rightly more afraid of Mei than she is of them at first meeting, appear throughout the stage version. Grouped together like gangs of extremely small dogs on a walker’s leashes, they are handled by a team of astonishingly gifted puppeteers, who transform them into a chorus line as technically perfect as anything Busby Berkeley ever staged, oozing empathy and charm instead of glitz and glamour. One particularly touching tweak to the story has them comforting Mei in a dark moment.

The same brilliant team also handles scene changes (their job description might as well be Dances With Architecture,) and animates rice-fields, grass and flowers, magically accelerated seedlings, a chicken chorus, the iconic greedy goat, the Catbus and the Totoros themselves, with such balletic grace and such a sense of fun that they took their final bow to a huge roar of approval.

Even the opening title card is animated with that sense of fun. It pushes in a sly acknowledgement that Disney may call the film My Neighbor Totoro but the RSC is working in another language. I won’t spoil it, but it had the audience in stitches.

As I left the theatre, the Barbican gift shop and box office were closed but the souvenir stand in the foyer was still selling programmes and t-shirts. I overheard one woman in the queue telling her friend that she was trying to get online to book more tickets (mobile reception in the concrete depths of one of London’s greatest Brutalist buildings can be erratic) and lamenting the fact that she couldn’t buy them on the spot.

I really hope that the RSC’s agreement with Ghibli allows them to tour this much-needed explosion of joy, both nationwide and worldwide. Meanwhile, get a ticket while you can.

Helen McCarthy is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation. My Neighbour Totoro is playing at London’s Barbican until 21st January.

* This article was originally published here


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