It’s a risky move to adapt a widely loved childhood classic for the stage. But have no fear, My Neighbour Totoro is a nostalgia-inducing masterpiece.

Credit: Manuel Harlan

The world premiere of the stage adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro, by Tom Morton-Smith, is currently on at the Barbican Theatre for a strictly limited run. Set in 1950s Japan, the show is centred around Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) and Mei (Mei Mac), two young children who move into an old house to be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from an undefined illness. Mei soon discovers spirits in the woods and befriends them – including Totoro.

The performances by Okumura Jones and Mac are endearing and energetic; they both bring childlike imagination and curiosity to life and evoke a feeling of nostalgia to the audience. Mac in particular seems to regress into infancy right in front of our eyes, embodying a small child and giving a believable performance. Although overacting is required in places, particularly to achieve the tantrums of a small child, Mac’s portrayal never falls into the realm of cringy, which is no small feat.

Tom Pye’s set design is stunning. The set pieces, such as the trees, act as a blank canvas for Finn Ross and Andrea Scott’s video projections. When displaying the rain, the video projection looks almost animated, a great reminder of the source material. The scenery changes regularly throughout the performance, and there are many tricks to the staging, which meant I was constantly surprised as more were revealed. It’s not clear from the first scene, but they make excellent use of the Barbican’s huge stage.

The staging changes are intricately choreographed and more akin to a dance performance. Everything is perfectly timed, and the ensemble/puppeteers really are the essential ingredient to this production. The use of You-Ri Yamanaka’s movements ensures that the show flows smoothly and makes the staging changes interesting to watch. The movement brings every set piece and prop to life and breathes life into the production as a whole.

Joe Hisaishi’s iconic score is performed live with new orchestrations from Will Stuart. The score is beautiful, taking the audience on the journey of the characters. There are dramatic moments and fun moments which are perfectly performed by the orchestra on stage. Ai Ninomiya’s voice is outstanding, and her performance is filled with emotion.

Credit: Manuel Harlan

Basil Twist’s masterful puppetry is the star of the show. No photographs have been released of Totoro and his friends, so you must go along if you want to know what they look like. The puppetry perfectly brings these much-loved characters to life. It really is a sight to behold, and I cannot do it justice talking about it – it’s something which needs to be witnessed to get the full effect of.

The plot of the play is not the strongest aspect, although it remains faithful to the film throughout. If this adaptation had relied heavily on the plot and did not put as much attention to detail into the creative choices, this would be a weak production. However, considering the high standard of the puppetry, score, staging, and performances, the slightly thin plot line can be forgiven instantly. I also really enjoyed that we didn’t have the traditional happy ending of usual family shows; here, the conclusion is left open to interpretation, and with how much onus the story puts on imagination, it’s a wonderful touch.

My Neighbour Totoro is an absolute feast for the senses. It invokes a childlike wonder in the audience – I for one sat with a smile stretched across my face for the entire run time. This may just be the most visually stunning production I have seen this year. This is a masterclass on how to create a stage adaptation; they have created a magical masterpiece that people of any age will love. My Neighbour Totoro is faultless from start to finish and is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year. Beg, borrow, or steal (don’t) a ticket!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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