My Neighbour Totoro Review: Jaw-dropping puppetry from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop
Posted by  badge Boss on Oct 21
My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

Meet Totoro, a great pointy-eared, mountain of breathing fur with Wild Thing claws and a Cheshire cat grin bearing tombstone teeth. 

In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest family show this is the eponymous star of a simple Japanese story. A father and his two young daughters move to a spooky old country house where it is hoped his fragile wife can recover after she leaves hospital. Here four-year-old Mei discovers the strange behemoth that lives somewhere in the dense foliage of an ancient camphor tree at the end of the garden.

But of course this anatomically improbable spirit of the forest was already known to the gazillion fans of the 1988 animated movie on which this show is based. And once they heard that the movie’s creators Studio Ghibli (the people behind the even better known Spirited Away) and the RSC were collaborating to make a stage version the news must have sparked many versions of one question: How?

How do you transpose the feathery watercolour art design of the original to real life? How do you recreate the giant, flying cat-bus that meows its way over the rolling hills of the Japanese countryside?

How do you make Totoro, this strange, house-sized earthly entity whose simple pleasures such as sleeping and the listening to the sound of rain belie a fathom-deep understanding of children and their fears? And what about the Soot Sprites, the urchin like creatures that scuttle around houses and through the night air?  

The answers here are so satisfying they draw spontaneous applause from those in the audience who have seen the film and asked themselves these same questions. Puppetry from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop provides some of the practical solutions. 

But in Phelim McDermott’s beautiful if longish production, which could do with tightening, the alchemy lies in the meeting of Tom Morton-Smith’s adaptation, Tom Pye’s design and the music of Joe Hisaishi who has adapted his original film score for this stage version. Meanwhile Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac, who star as the sisters, superbly flesh out their freewheeling animated alter egos. 

One word of advice: so see the film before the show. Wanting to know how it can all work is half the fun.