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In a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company, composer/producer Joe Hisaishi has assembled a world-class team of writers, designers, puppeteers and actors to bring to life the story of two young sisters who discover a giant wood spirit when they relocate from Tokyo to the countryside.
Under Phelim McDermott’s freewheeling direction, the sisters – young, irrepressible Mei (Mei Mac) and older, responsible Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) – negotiate their way through a forest of shifting sets and awesome puppets to tell a fundamentally simple story.
While their mother (Haruka Abe) lies seriously ill in hospital and their professor father (Dai Tabuchi) shuttles to and fro between the rural community and Tokyo, the sisters are left in the care of Granny (Jacqueline Tate), from whom they are constantly escaping.
A trail of acorns leads them into the woods where they encounter an enormous furry creature – part-rabbit/part-owl – known as a totoro. He makes a big growly noise but at heart he’s a pussycat.
Speaking of felines, there is also a cat bus – a huge inflatable blimp of a grinning puss (shades of Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat) that is more Elephantom than War Horse and has the audience in stitches.
Of the smaller puppets, the flock of chickens buck-buck-buckawing around the stage is hysterical, while the soot sprites that dash all over the walls are only creepy to arachnophobes.
The story is slender and the songs unremarkable, but that’s hardly the point. The benign environmentalism and puppet master Basil Twist’s creations (via The Jim Henson Company) are the reason to book your seats. Cynical adults may not be transported by its singular whimsy.
Everyone else will be spirited away.
- My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre until January 21 Tickets: 020 7870 250
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