My Neighbor Totoro Stage Play – Review

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Well, they did.

The new stage version of the Royal Shakespeare Company My Neighbor Totoro is filming at the Barbican Center in London and it’s… let’s put it that way. There’s a grumpy anime director named Hayao Miyazaki, and he’s famous for freaks who give presentations that offend him. And by “monster” I don’t mean a furry friendly monster that loves raindrops, acorns and spinning tops. To further raise the stakes, Totoro is Miyazaki’s most personal film, one where he reclaimed his troubled and scared childhood and made magic out of it for the world. So it’s not nothing to try to bring Totoro to play.

Directed by Phelim McDermott and written by Tom Morton-Smith, this Totoro has many tricks, but the main one is how he achieves two very different things at once. It feels extremely faithful to the classic 1988 film, and it feels happily, playfully creative, like it’s discovering what it can do even while you’re watching. It’s funny. It’s sometimes completely silly; there are moments that could come from a very good pantomime. But then the room can swing into something awesome, scary, and even scary. Rather than a panto, this Totoro more like a dance, a dance sweeping up the two frolicking little girls, Mei and Satsuki, black soot creatures, timid rabbit-sized creatures, and even corn-filled hedgerows (which are swirled around by the chorus puppeteers in the room) and pieces of houses that reconfigure on a turntable like giant jigsaw pieces.

For anyone who has seen the film, the Tobulls are what you sit back and wait for. How will the play unfold this scene, and this one, and this one? But the play rightly puts the girls first, as it should; all the wonders of Totoros is channeled through them. And the two actors – Mei Mac as Mei and Ami Okumura Jones as Satsuki – are superb. You know, these are adults who play, or more accurately interpret, characters who are a fraction of their age, but they throw themselves into their roles with the same sense of discovery as the play. They are funny, endearing, vulnerable, brave, bratty and loud. (A typical Mei line: “We saw a COW!”) You don’t imagine them as anime girls; you accept them are Mei and Satsuki on stage.

Like in the movie, Mei experiences the greatest moments, not just when she’s crawling on something’s giant hairy belly, but later too, when the magic is nowhere in sight and she’s more hurt and scared as any child should be. Beside her, Satsuki can only try to lead her like a good big sister – the play amplifies a moment where Satsuki berates herself for letting Mei down, and it feels like a climactic moment of Mamoru Hosodait is Mirai, another tale of young siblings and their overwhelming emotions. But even though Satsuki tries hard to lead Mei, the irony is that Satsuki’s happiest moments are when she follows Mei instead, or when the girls spontaneously date.

Among the supporting cast is country boy Kanta (Nino Furuhata) – he’s the one who watches Satsuki from afar and acts like a preteen tsundere. He’s undermined for comedy, turned into the kind of boy who’s terrified of saying a syllable to a daughter. There’s a gem of a new scene, where Kanta feeds the chickens in his house, and somehow the chickens end up ganging up on him (it’s a psycho chicken scene!) , and it’s a riot. Kanta’s grandmother (Jacqueline Tate) is also completed. She’s still adorable, but with a bit more temper and trepidation than the movie gave her, and the added detail that she once had a sister, too. The girls’ father, Tatsuo (Dai Tabuchi), is close to the film, but with a more humorous focus on how he depends on his responsible daughters to get him out to work in the mornings and make things work around the house. Once again, it feels like Hosoda Miraiand how the harassed stay-at-home dad was shown there.

Humans, then, feel real. The atthe bulls look as real as they should be. I won’t spoil the details of how the Totoro are done, but it never feels like a high-tech game. There aren’t the ostentatious stage machines or video screen effects you get Back to the Future: The Musical, to take another recent film adaptation to play. But you have huge creatures on stage, and that’s something. Many room effects show exactly How? ‘Or’ What they are made while you watch them. But there’s one sequence, which lasts what seems like a long time – certainly longer than the famous scene it adapts – that will make you think, how the hell do they do that on stage?and it’s a play you’ll remember long after.

Creatures often look clumsy, but good clumsy. The little Tothe toros appear everywhere on stage as if they were in an old scooby-doo cartoon. The giant creatures sometimes look like they emerged from a child’s drawing (probably Mei’s), but that also seems okay. As for the expressions of the giant King Totoro, I remembered the first King Kong in 1933, which saw times when filmmakers used “real” life-size props to punctuate stop-motion. Only now do you see giants on stage, right in front of you.

But the piece also evokes animation, on many occasions. While I have described the named characters in the play, there is another set of performers. They are the black-clad puppeteers, usually veiled in black, who are constantly in sight, manipulating the scenery, wielding the smaller creatures, or coming together in groups to move or lift the larger ones. It’s like a behind-the-scenes stop-motion movie, when you see the animators tenderly moving the models through which they act. On stage, the puppeteers sometimes push and lift the human figures as well.

They also double as extra humans when needed, for example, to play with the kids in Satsuko’s class. When they move the set, sometimes the girls themselves see the set move, as in a startling sequence where Mei gets lost in hedgerows that circle around her, and even “attacks” her. If this were animation, it would be a more psychedelic cartoon than anything Miyazaki would ever do.

The game also goes beyond Miyazaki with goads to the fourth wall. A few effects go slightly “awry” for deliberate gags. A puppeteer must be pushed by his teammate, because he forgot to transform into a character in the world to advance the current scene. If these jokes were animated, they would be more Aardman animations than Ghibli. The play has some beautiful moments of what are pretty much low-tech “animation,” and they’ll remind older viewers of cut-out TV shows from UK studio Smallfilms, the makers of Noggin the Nog and Ivor the engine.

Granted, the play makes choices that won’t please everyone. There’s a key part of the movie where you’re definitely wondering “How are they going to do it?” as the piece approaches the moment. What is the game actually Is with this challenge is hilarious low-tech and very charming, but it left me disappointed, like a child opening a present and finding socks. Or to do another animation comparison, I felt like watching an anime head into a huge battle, and then the battle itself is just stills. It happened just before the break and left me a little flat…then the second half started with a different low-tech effect, and this one enchanted me so much that I forgave the game instantly.

Unsurprisingly, the piece extends the conversations that were in the film, and adds new ones. Some Japanese expressions are cheerfully thrown into English dialogue, like “itadakimasu! » and yatta!. More seriously, Mei and Satsuki are shown to be very aware of the tragic truths. It’s Mei, I think, who first brings up the subject of death in the play, with disarming, unsweetened frankness. Satsuki, on the other hand, knows very well that adults lie about bad things, and she won’t be lied to anymore.

There is fear in the room, but it is mixed with awe and joy, especially when the huge furry figures loom from the dark background of the stage. The scene where Mei enters the deep dark forest seems even more Alice in Wonderland than in the movie, as if she had walked into an old woodcut from a fairy tale. The departure of the soot elves from the country house turns into a calm and measured dance of furballs in the air. It’s the long play equivalent of all those pillow shots in the movie of snails on blades of grass and leaves on streams.

The sounds of thunder, wind and torrential rain heighten the experience. The same goes for the orchestra, visible in the background, often playing variations of Joe Hisaishithe music of the movie. He’s not afraid to go louder than the movie at times to add crescendos to moments of crisis. Sometimes a soloist (Ai Ninomiya) sings in both English and Japanese, most urgently when a child has gone missing and the darkest dance in the room is performed against the sound of deep, deep water.

I heard sniffles behind me during the final scenes of the play, when the characters are most distressed, and that’s how it should be. But in the end, what looked like the entire audience rose to a standing ovation, with tricks and jokes all the way to the final curtain.

I saw one of the preview performances of the play – the press night is October 18th. I paid for my ticket, which was not cheap (£85), although I was lucky enough to get a perfect seat close to the action. Don’t enter this Totoro expecting a digital age miracle like a Hatsune Miku concert. Do go for great acting and set design and pretend to share and copious amounts of stage fur. The greatest compliment you can give the piece is that you can imagine it’s stage Totoro that Miyazaki would do himself.

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