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Review: My Neighbour Totoro (Barbican Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale


One of the most anticipated shows of the year is now open at London’s Barbican. The reaction to the announcement the cult classic My Neighbour Totoro was being adapted for the stage created a wave of excitement – but with expectations THAT high, how could it ever live up to it?



Based on the classic animated movie from Studio Ghibli in 1988, My Neighbour Totoro focuses on sisters Satsuki and Mei as they find out there is more to their new countryside home than meets the eye as they discover a whole land of magical creatures on their doorstep. This global premiere has been brought to the stage by producers Joe Hisaishi and the Royal Shakespeare Company. While the original movie is close to a lot of people’s hearts, I have to admit never seeing it myself before so I went in to this show not knowing what to expect. Let me tell you – I was blown away.


Never has a show won me over so instantly before. From the moment a stray U appears in the title “My Neighbor Totoro” before the show started, I was hooked. What followed was 2 and a half hours of pure theatre magic that reminded me of what theatre can achieve at its very best. The only way to describe it is to think about that feeling you had as a kid when you experienced magic on stage for the first time. That sense of childlike wonder and innocence dissipates as you grow older and you become colder, more cynical and generally harder to please (or is that just me?). My Neighbour Totoro captures that sense of childlike wonder perfectly and manages to recapture that childhood magic for the adult members of the audience in a way I don’t think any show before has managed to.



The world that is created on that stage is constantly jaw dropping. Increasingly varied in its approach, entire sets revolve and reveal hidden tracks before a curtain drops transforming everything. The design from Tom Pye and direction from Phelim McDermott creates the most flawless and intricate set I think I have ever seen in all my years of theatre going. The detail of this production really is a fantastic testament to what can be achieved through the medium of theatre.


Another element that makes My Neighbour Totoro stand out is its innovative approach to puppetry. Created by Basil Twist, it makes no attempt to hide the puppeteers, that doesn’t take away from the wonder or escapism of the piece and only goes to heighten how impressive it is, with puppeteers stopping to bow at various points in the show and an ingenious curtain call that recreates key moments from the show in a very different way. This doesn’t take away from the magic of it all at it and only increases the sense of wonder and awe for how incredible these performers and this production truly is.



When it comes to puppets, I have to mention the titular Totoro. I had heard about how impressive he was prior to visiting and the anticipation I had for his first reveal left me feeling like a kid at Christmas. That initial reveal was every bit as satisfying as I had hoped. Huge in scale with phenomenal details such as the inside of his mouth and eyes that reacted as if he’d just watched the latest developments of the British Government. Whenever you caught a glimpse of Totoro approaching from the background, you couldn’t help but raise a smile as you knew magic was about to happen. I would say the scene with Totoro at the bus stop is one of my favourite things I’ve ever seen with the catbus spectacular to witness. Pictures of these are asked to be kept secret so as to not spoil the magic - just trust me when I tell you it really is a sight to behold.


While the writing may play secondary to the visuals, it is still a beautiful story which perfectly brings imagination to life and portrays the childlike wonder that can distract from the more difficult times in our lives. My Neighbour Totoro is a story with a lot of heart, but one that glosses over some of the darker elements of the story, though there is a noticeable shift towards the end of act 2 before things get back to the carefree happiness of the majority of the show. This might alienate some people who would like a bit more substance to the story, but a picture can tell a thousand words and this staging does just that.



The cast assembled for My Neighbour Totoro are nothing short of exquisite. Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones lead the cast beautifully as the young sisters Mei and Satsuki leading the cast and audience with their youthful exuberance and the varying emotions that come with it, also displaying great chemistry together. Dai Tabuchi and Haruka Abe are excellent as their parents Tatsuo and Yasuko, while Jacqueline Tate and Nino Furuhata are highlights as Granny. With all members of the two cast bar the two sisters doubling up as puppeteers, there really is no end to the talents of this consistently excellent cast.


Music plays a key part of My Neighbour Totoro with the gorgeous talents of singer Ai Ninomiya providing a stunning soundtrack to the events. With the original music from the film by Joe Hisaishi present in stunning new orchestrations by Will Stuart and adapted lyrics by Tom Morton-Smith and Hilmi Jaidin providing a delicate mix of Japanese and English lyrics which creates another layer to this beautifully multifaceted show.



Whether you are familiar with the original movie or not, there is something for everyone in My Neighbour Totoro. No matter your age, this is a show for kids and big kids alike and one that will make you feel the childlike wonder that the very best theatre can create. A true feat in theatricality, truly sensational set design and world class puppetry make this one of the most spectacular shows London has seen for a long time. While it may only be at the Barbican for a short season, a future life for this incredible show feels inevitable – it would certainly deserve to. Full of spirit, heart and overall truly enchanting, My Neighbour Totoro really is a magical creature of a show.


★★★★★


My Neighbour Totoro is at the Barbican until January 21st 2023. Tickets from http://totoroshow.com/


Photos by Manuel Harlan

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