Kids and uncommon creatures are not an unusual sight on UK stages. We’ve looked up to the BFG, listened when A Monster Calls and flown thrown the air with The Snowman but, oh my, My Neighbour Totoro is something else. Size might not be everything but this beautiful beast of a show boasts some of the biggest and most jawdroppingly loveable animal puppets this side of The Lion King.

The production is based on a much-loved 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film from the acclaimed Studio Ghibli and is currently London’s hottest ticket; the opening box office sales at the Barbican has broken all records, even overtaking those set by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. The reasons why are numerous but there are three obvious ones: McDermott, Matilda and sheer theatrical magic.

Director Phelim McDermott is a draw all on his own. He transformed Philip Glass’ Egyptian opera Akhnaten into a spectacle which featured gorgeously designed sets, a battalion of jugglers and memorably mesmerising acting; the work has since become a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and returns to the ENO next year. In 2022, he has already raised the roof at the Coliseum with his highly-acclaimed Coney Island-themed take on Cosi Fan Tutte. And now Totoro which will enhance his reputation even further.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s experience with Matilda – a family-friendly show centered on the supernatural experiences of a young girl and is still selling out in the West End – will have emboldened it to build on that success and Totoro is the result. With music from the film’s composer Joe Hisaishi and a blessing from its director and Studio Ghibli head Hayao Miyazaki, fans of the original won’t be disappointed.

The plot revolves around two sisters. Mei and Satsuki (four- and ten-years-old respectively) are moving to the countryside with their father to be closer to their sick mother. The new house is more than a tad rickety, possibly haunted and, in thanks to production designer Tom Pye, a thing of beauty. Seeing it revolve around the stage, move apart into carefully constructed rooms and walls before coming back together again is more than enough to hold the attention before Mei and Satsuki’s “neighbour” appears.

A message before the show politely asks the audience not to take pictures of Basil Twist’s superb puppets during the show, and rightly so. Seeing the massive Totoro should be first done in person as we see him lying flat on his back and being awoken by a courageous Mei. We don’t see him upright until later but, even prone on the floor, he is a gobsmacking sight. About fifteen feet high with a huge grin that alternates between terrifying and endearing, this is a puppet that enchants and enthrals every time it appears. Of equal (and maybe bigger) scale is a ten-legged cat-shaped bus which flies through the air. Smaller puppets including a cheeky goat and a flock of chickens are animated through black-clad bunraku performers who are arguably the real stars here: it is through their efforts that the 2D dreamlike world of the film is given an extra dimension and no shortage of humour.

Mei Mac plays the youngest sister with no guile and no end of charm while Ami Okumura Jones as Satsuki and Dai Tubuchi as their father Yasuko are brilliantly cast. Nino Furuhata as boy-next-door-on-the-cusp-of-puberty Kanta sees his role expanded from the film, even if his impact on the overall plot is slight. Great as they are, the cast struggle to impress as much as the scenery and the puppets, especially once Totoro shows up.

It is hard to understate the emotional and visual impact that Tototo has. Seeing is believing and, if you miss your chance this year, we’ll eat your hat if Mei and co don’t make a return appearance to the Barbican before too long.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan @ Copyright Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

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