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The My Neighbour Totoro theatre production in play at the Barbican Centre, London

A pang of nostalgia hit when the live instrumental music started after the lights were dimmed. Music seems to have the ability to bring one back in time, such as Joe Hisaishi’s tunes for My Neighbour Totoro that I grew up listening to and watching on the television. Composer, conductor and pianist Joe Hisaishi composed the film score for My Neighbour Totoro and is also a significant collaborator with Japanese animation Studio Ghibli’s team for decades. Currently, the My Neighbour Totoro theatre production in play at the Barbican Centre, London is adapted by Tom Morton-Smith and executively produced by Hisaishi. With music arranged by Hisaishi and live vocals performed by Ai Ninomiya, the theatre production also includes pieces that were written for the movie but did not make it into the animation released in 1988.

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My Neighbour Totoro is currently showing at the Barbican Centre in London. Image courtesy of Royal Shakespeare Company and Nippon TV.

Within the first few seconds of the start of the theatre production, an element of surprise from the puppeteers also began. The stage which appeared to be a plain digital screen began showing another layer of dimension through the introduction of physical puppets. Throughout the theatre production, the puppeteers skillfully recreate the atmospheric mood that Studio Ghibli’s works uniquely possess, transforming the two-dimensional qualities on screen into three-dimensional form. From the soot spirits to farm animals, each character’s essence was delivered with precision and often with humour.

The highlight of the production was the first reveal of the beloved character Totoro. The puppetry production played with Totoro’s scale and brought the uncanny likeness of the facial expressions and movements of Totoro to life through a complicated network of puppeteers inside, beneath and around the puppet. Fitting to his name as the king of totoros because there are also two other totoros - the chibi totoro and chu totoro, Totoro’s character is the biggest but comes with his distinct eyes, wide cheek-to-cheek smile, and the iconic bounce to its walk. Designed by the award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist, the puppets were said to be built in Los Angeles. Act one pre-intermission contained the most highlights and surprise elements of the production, followed by act two which continues to build on the story. The props and puppets greatly exceeded expectations, as the first reveal of Totoro in the memorable scene where it was sleeping when the character Mei first found Totoro was welcomed with a roaring sound of applause from the audience. No spoilers here and the no photography policy here is definitely called for.

My Neighbour Totoro is a story of imagination, courage and hope. Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli told the story through the bond as well as friction between two sisters Satsuki and Mei, and their relationship with their parents and neighbours of a new countryside town that they just moved into. Somewhat peculiar in the selection of casting for the sisters in this Barbican Centre, London production is that Satsuki and Mei are played by adults. Phelim McDermott, Director of the My Neighbour Totoro production who is the co-Artistic Director and co-Founder of Improbable was quoted saying that ‘the two young sibling heroines are unlikely to be played by children. We have to use performers who can do many things… puppetry, physical stuff, so there are choices to be made.’ Having said that, the character Mei, played by actress Mei Mac who is 41 years old nailed the highly excitable and cartoon-like character.

The set at the Barbican Centre is designed by Tom Pye who works across theatre, TV, film, opera and dance. Utilising the stage’s central revolve heavily, the set was dynamic and creatively moved in motion, allowing viewers to see many scenes from multiple angles. This created a movie-like quality in my opinion because as a viewer, I am no longer merely seeing the set from the front only but have access to rich viewing angles of the live acts. A 360 degree view of Totoro? Yes, please. Other key contributors to the production include costumes by Kimie Nakano and lighting by Jessica Yun.

While this production at the Barbican London is scheduled to be in performance until 21st January 2023, unfortunately as of today, the tickets are now all sold out. So is it a theatre production, a concert or a puppet show? It is all in there and thoughtfully integrated. A wonderful collaboration between Joe Hisaishi and the Royal Shakespeare Company, also in collaboration with Improbable and Nippon TV. With the level of detail the team has managed to execute and deliver, it will be a huge shame to end the performance before the world gets a chance to re-experience this Studio Ghibli memory or introduce the beauty of this successful collaboration. 


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