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My Neighbour Totoro (Barbican Theatre)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 20th October 2022)

This show is for children. Specifically, children who already know and love the story.

The monkey had absolutely no prior knowledge of this tale, and admits that as a single middle-aged male without children, found itself completely at odds with the entire affair.

Appreciative of Japanese culture, it enjoyed the texture of a post-war time of growing prosperity combined with the minimalism and simplicity of structured life. It also appreciated the odd moment of flare from puppetry creative Basil Twist and some smart moments in the finale (look for the postman and dog).

The trouble is that a simple story about two young girls and their father moving to a strange house in the country while mother is in hospital is uneventful and stretched its patience to breaking point over two and a half long hours.

The little girl meets a sort of steroid-enhanced flump, modelled to look a bit like the “Where the Wild Things Are” creatures of Maurice Sendak, and which apparently has sort of penguin / smurf like fluffy children. It doesn’t do a lot except hang around her garden and call for an inflatable cat-bus which mercifully speeds up the ending. 

Indeed, it was noticeable that while the younger children in the audience reacted to the creatures at first, they too stopped doing so by the second (stronger) act. And that is the major issue with the show – there’s little a regular theatregoer hasn’t seen before, and none of it is particularly well executed.

It is an exceptionally poor opening when magnetic creatures fall off / are trapped in your front curtain and have to be removed by your opening actors. Further ludicrous blocking obscures a key door from half the audience, when a revolve motion made a few moments early would ease the problem.

Downright insulting and unforgivable from director Phelim McDermott is to add emotional songs with beautiful melody to heighten key scenes... then have the lyric sung in Japanese. McDermott lacks the wit and initiative to surtitle, thus draining totally the impact of what was clearly a special moment. Singer Ai Ninomiya’s English versions of some verses, when they did arrive, are also rendered inaudible in the front stalls corner by Tony Gayle’s sound system.

Among the cast, playing four-year-old Mel, Mei Mac has enthusiasm. Older sister Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) gets the greater character development and is pleasing in her grasp of the seriousness of her mother’s situation. That eccentric father Tatsuo (Dai Tabuchi) and mother Yasuko (Haruka Abe) come together as a family unit is the one saving grace – creating a simple and uplifting final moment.

Veiled puppeteers swarm around the stage moving odd things on sticks, mostly slowly and for no really good reason. Tableaus come and go and add more running time as the pace rarely ignites.

There is clear theatricality lurking, the tale is without doubt worth telling to a live audience. There just isn't as much of it as the adaptors seem to think, and this full-blown production swamps totally what should be a mildly charming journey through a young imagination moulded by frightening events.

“The Elephantom,” a National Theatre production for ages 3 and over captivated the monkey. “Disney on Ice,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and many other “family shows” too. This just left it cold. 

No doubt it will go on to be a massive hit for the RSC - hopefully replenishing its coffers and delighting audiences full of the original story's fans around the globe. If the monkey had children who where not, though, it would be booking the local panto this Christmas instead.

2 stars for lone adults, 5 stars for fans of the source material.

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