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Review: Spirited Away (London Coliseum)

Updated: May 9

Review by Daz Gale


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

After decades of creating movies that made audiences all over the world fall in love, Studio Ghibli have set their sights on the West End. Two successful London runs of My Neighbour Totoro leading to next year’s West End transfer showed there was clearly an adaptation for stage adaptations of their classics over here, so it is only right that their biggest success and, perhaps, best-loved masterpiece gets its turn in the spotlight as the eagerly anticipated stage adaptation of  the Oscar-winning Spirited Away heads to the West End’s biggest theatre. Would this be able to recreate the success of the film, as well as the spirit?



Wowing audiences since the film was released in 2001, the stage adaptation of Spirited Away began its new life in Tokyo in 2022 and is now enjoying its European premiere with many of the cast from the original run reprising their roles. It tells the story of ten-year-old girl Chihiro Ogino, also known as Sen, who stumbles upon a magical world while moving to a new neighbourhood. After her parents are turned into pigs, she finds herself working in a bathhouse for the Gods as she finds a way to save her parents and return to the human world.

 

From that description, it would be fair to wonder how such a fantastical story could be recreated on stage in a medium that, while possible to push boundaries, has its clear limitations. Flying dragons, people transforming into other characters altogether and a world of larger-than-life creatures is not something you see every day in the West End, and it would be entirely possible for this production to fail to bring these characters and sequences to life. It’s safe to say there was no problem in this respect at all, with carefully thought-out staging perfectly getting the balance between stage magic and imagination.



Hayao Miyazaki’s original film direction has been cleverly adapted for the stage by John Caird and Maoko Imai in a breathtaking feat of world-building. Pivotal moments from the film are faithfully recreated with great attention to detail ensuring everything from design to movement to sound is as expected. This brings a level of satisfaction to those who know the film religiously from start to finish but ensures that first-time viewers and those who are less familiar with the film will be able to be transported into this world without struggle.


Performed entirely in its original Japanese with English surtitles visible from every seat (though it does mean looking away from the stage, depending on where you're sat), there is no risk of anything being lost in translation, with the story immediately accessible whether you understand the spoken word or are reading the subtitles. I must admit this is something I had trepidation about, having never seen a show with subtitles personally before -  I needn’t have worried as Spirited Away is proof that theatre is universal and stories can be told in many different ways, never lessening the impact no matter which way you are following the story.



The elaborate nature of the staging takes the vast nature of the looming Coliseum stage and fills it with an entire world with an intricate, never-slowing nature, keeping the surprises coming and the visually pleasing aesthetic consistent. Jon Bausor’s set design can only be described as a work of art, bringing the best of the movie and transporting it to the theatre world with truly inspired touches. The result is always enchanting, creating a beautiful show which pushes the boundaries of design qualities, without overly relying on special effects. While there is no shortage of show-stopping sequences throughout, be it a character reveal or a clever use of a prop, there is a charm in their deceptive simplicity too, stripping the essence of theatre magic to its bare essentials and allowing audiences to use your imaginations and lose themselves in the sense of childlike wonder.

 

A key element to the success of these design aspects is Toby Olie’s ingenious puppetry design. Perpetually playful, every puppet reveal proves awe-inspiring, and the compatibility with the human actors and, at times, the necessity for these puppets to become human and vice versa brings a huge amount of creativity, all executed flawlessly. Jiro Katsushiba’s lighting, Sachiko Nakahara’s lavish costumes, and Satoshi Kuriyama’s projections complement this world-building ability to create a sense of cohesion. While elements of the staging, design, and transitions can be busy in themselves, it always flows seamlessly thanks to every creatives clear singular vision in bringing Spirited Away to life in the best way it can.



Another aspect of Spirited Away that enhances the experience is its music and sound. The glorious original film score by Joe Hisaishi is faithfully recreated on stage and elevated through a stunning live orchestra. Between the underlying music, the use of singing peppered throughout, and Koichi Yamamoto’s crystal clear sound design, the sound matches the high quality brought by the visuals to allow a truly atmospheric setting, immersing you into the action and allowing you to come face to face with the characters… or should that be face to no-face?

 

It is John Caird’s direction that ties all of these ambitious elements together to ensure they are all performed meticulously. It takes an unbelievable amount of skill to bring a project like this to life, especially given how dear people hold this story to their hearts. The fact this is pulled off with ease is a testament to the skill of all involved with this production. A special mention has to go to Shigehiro Ide’s sensational choreography, giving each character their distinct sense of movement, often in weird and wonderful ways, in sequences that are sometimes complex and relentless in their demands.



Helping to realise the creative's expert vision is a hard-working and note-perfect cast, many of whom reprise their roles from the original production in Tokyo. The lead roles have a rotating cast, with different performers taking on the demanding parts each night. For the press performance I went to, Mone Kamishiraishi took on the lead role of Chihiro/Sen in an impressive turn which saw her remain present for the majority of the three-hour runtime. A truly gifted performer, she tapped into the character perfectly, bringing emotion, vulnerability, and an instantly loveable quality. Kotaro Daigo was brilliantly mysterious in a captivating performance as Haku, while Hikaru Yamano delighted with his use of movement in a standout turn as No-Face. In a performance that very nearly turned into a cross between Madame Morrible and a pantomime villain, Mari Natsuki was brilliantly terrifying as the sinister Yubaba.


Truth be told, Spirited Away is a show where every single performer, whether they are a named character, in the ensemble or one of the ridiculously talented puppeteers, deserves to be commended. In a stage bursting with life (and death), they expertly weave their way through the action, leaving their mark and ensuring they are one tight unit, delighting at every turn.



The posters for Spirited Away describe itself as “the theatre event of the year” – a bold claim to make, but one that feels very justified in this instance. Bringing a sense of magic and wonder to the West End, this visual spectacle wows at every turn, pulling at your emotions and providing more complete escapism than any show I have seen before. The care and detail that have gone into realising this world create awe-inspiring results, with its mixture of stage magic and simplicity without relying on over-the-top special effects adding to its charm. You think you have seen it all in the theatre and then something new comes along to remind you what theatre can achieve at its best and the power a fresh yet familiar show can hold on your spirit. Astonishing, mesmerising, and consistently amazing, Spirited Away really could be the theatre event of the year.

 

Spirited Away plays at the London Coliseum until 24th August. Tickets from www.londoncoliseum.org 

 

Photos by Johan Persson

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