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My Neighbour Totoro is profound and inventive

To the Barbican, for My Neighbour Totoro

Not since Life of Pi, have I fell in love with a show so unconditionally.

My Neighbour Totoro Photo by Manuel Harlan

The RSC’s completely stunning stage version of the 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film has smashed box office records – eloquent, profound, and moving, My Neighbour Totoro benefits from wonderful music by Joe Hisaishi that says more than words ever could.

Phelim McDermott, who divides his career between opera and theatre, has pitched his production somewhere between a playful musical, a divine comedy, and a metaphysical drama. The plot centres 10-year-old Satsuki and her 4-year-old sister, Mei, in 1950s Japan befriending forest spirits. Then crisis comes as the children’s mother falls gravely ill, and all of a sudden we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Reworked for the stage by Tom Morton-Smith, here we see emotions form the fundamental arc of all narrative life. This is a production that embraces sadness and doubt.

My Neighbour Totoro Photo by Manuel Harlan

As for the puppets, designed by Basil Twist, they are the real pull of a show that broke the Barbican box-office records for ticket sales in a single day, surpassing the set by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.

The inflatable Cat-Bus, meanwhile, is a huge glowing feline that floats through the set’s trees with supernatural grace. It’s as bizarre, imaginative, and authentically psychedelic as anything produced in mainstream theatre. I loved the chickens and the Soot Sprites.

Just as the sensational screen to stage adaptation of Life of Pi, so this show uses puppets and drilled ensemble storytelling to stunning effect, all on Tom Pye’s malleable set that shifts scenes with effortlessness grace.

Of course, it’s easy to become blasé about the visual brilliance, both technical and artistic, of RSC’s output, but Totoro really is a treat for the eyes. Formidably inventive, My Neighbour Totoro hits an elusive sweet spot in terms of appealing to children and adults alike. 

The show has adapted perfectly well to the Barbican stage, but, in essence, it signifies a return to the Cirque De Soleil appetite for spectacle. There is a stunning moment that celebrates the British East and Southeast Asian cast representation at the end during the joyous curtain call.

My Neighbour Totoro Photo by Manuel Harlan

Make no mistake, the artistry and insight will shine on any stage; West End, New York or Hong Kong.

Overall, a captivating world you won’t want to come home from, its beauty, warmth and ambition are panoramic.

I took my Godmother who had tears of joy streaming down her face as we exited the venue.

I may be late to the party, but I now have no hesitation in declaring myself a fully paid-up Totoro fan.

Grab a return or await the inevitable transfer.

At the Barbican, London, until 21 January

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