My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Centre Review: Whimsical, Enchanting and Idealistic

Tuesday 28 November 2023

My Neighbour Totoro
Barbican Centre

After a hugely applauded and successful run last year, My Neighbour Totoro has returned to the Barbican Centre and is as highly anticipated as ever. The 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film is much loved around the globe, but having never seen it personally I was intrigued how this stage adaptation would affect me. Thankfully I was blown away by the story and staging and can see why it's a tale so close to people's hearts.

Brought to the stage by producers Joe Hisaishi and the Royal Shakespeare Company, the show is a perfect combination of animation style moments and theatrical wonder. As a whole, it does a masterful job of capturing the essence of childhood wonder and innocence in a way that's relatable to adults and children alike. The colours are vibrant, the details meticulous, and the animation style timeless. From the moment the logo comes to life, the enchanting world of Totoro wakes up and takes the audience on a whimsical, wonderful journey.

The story, a heartfelt tale of two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, and their mischievous encounters with forest spirits, is simple but encompasses a range of emotions. The emotional depth and universal themes of family, friendship, and the magic of nature are portrayed with a subtlety and grace that I'm learning is very typically, Studio Ghibli. It's not the most intriguing of tales and is definitely more of a visual treat but the pacing is perfect, and allows the audience to savour every moment whilst keeping engaged throughout.

Tom Pye's ingenious design, paired with the creative direction of Phelim McDermott, has given life to an awe-inspiring and intricately detailed set, with hidden aspects and elements that come swooping in to create magical moments. The intricacy of this production's design serves as a testament to the limitless potential that the enchanting world of theatre can bring to life and even more special, is how throughout, it also manages to retain a sense of cosiness and intimacy.

The truly mesmerising part of My Neighbour Totoro is of course the astounding puppets crafted by Basil Twist. The production fearlessly showcases the puppeteers, adding a unique layer to the wonder and escapism of the performance. Far from diminishing the magic, the visible puppeteers become an integral part of the spectacle, stopping to bow during the show, often breaking the fourth wallk and culminating in a genius curtain call that is it's own whimsical show that's truly unexpected and brilliant.

The music in My Neighbour Totoro is the beating heart of the production, thanks to the enchanting vocals of Ai Ninomiya. Her performance provides a mesmerising soundtrack that weaves seamlessly with the unfolding events. The original film score by Joe Hisaishi, expertly re-orchestrated by Will Stuart, and the adapted lyrics by Tom Morton-Smith and Hilmi Jaidin which blend delicate Japanese and English verses, all add layersof depth to this beautifully intricate production. The perfect harmony between music and storytelling creates an immersive experience, and furthers the impact of the tale.

The amazing cast assembled feels like a tight-knit family on stage. Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones, portray the lively sisters Mei and Satsuki, effortlessly taking the audience on an emotional rollercoaster with their youthful energy and seamless chemistry. Dai Tabuchi and Emily Piggford give endearing performances as the caring parents, Tatsuo and Yasuko. What's truly remarkable is that, beyond their main roles, each cast member (bar Mei and Satsuki) also step into the role of puppeteer, showcasing the incredible versatility and talent that defines this consistently outstanding ensemble.

Whether you're a long-time Studio Ghibli fan or experiencing the magic for the first time, My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Centre is an absolute must-see. It's a theatrical gem that touches hearts and transports audiences to a world where imagination knows no bounds. Five stars simply don't do justice for this enchanting experience.

Reviewed on Monday 27th November 2023 by Olivia
Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Tickets for My Neighbour Totoro are available at London Box Office

{AD PR Invite- tickets gifted in exchange for honest review}