When was the last time a show left you with your jaw dropped on the floor? Well, in my case it happened once, when I saw “The Lion King” live for the first time, in the Lyceum Theatre. Then nothing happened for a really long time, until… Totoro came my way.
“My Neighbour Totoro” ignites childhood nostalgia, brings back memories from old school rural holidays (not necessarily in Japan!) and delivers a major tear jerking moment by the end. It’s a delightful, incredible show that leaves you charmed throughout. Simply spellbinding.
A record-breaking number of tickets have been sold at the Barbican, beating the previous record holder, Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Hamlet”. The Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli is known worldwide for films such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro, so it was expected that the tickets would sell well. But I was so surprised to see that even before the press night, 90% of all seats until the end of the run were well sold out. Currently, only a small amount of the highest-priced tickets are still available. There’s, however, a trick to finding a cheaper ticket – more on this later.
An important point to start with: no, you don’t have to be a Studio Ghibli or Totoro fan to understand this show. You don’t even need to know what the Totoro story is all about! The characters and background of the characters are well explained and don’t require any prior knowledge.
The story of “My Neighbour Totoro” is fairly simple, yet oozes warmth and fuzziness. We’re in the 1950s. Satsuki, 10, and Mei, 4, move from Tokyo to the countryside with their father to be closer to their tuberculosis-stricken mother. Their adventure in the new village-based home takes them into the forest, where they meet extraordinary spirits like Totoro. Imagination and world-building can soar here, and relationships and world-building can be detailed in beautiful ways.
The first act sets the bar crazy high. I was constantly surprised by the set changes, the appearances of the creatures and the music. The second act felt a bit slower, mostly because the majority of “surprise” cards have been revealed and we’ve already seen everything.
Musically, however, the second excels and delivers value more on the emotional level, rather than just by surprising and delighting with more and more creatures.
The puppetry – oh, wow! It looked like something I might have seen before, but only in the movies! The kind of work that’s been put into creating farm animals and fantastic creatures, is out of this world. They walk, they fly, they yawn, and there’s never a feeling of disconnection of action from this magical world.
Some of the creatures are tiny (and multiple of them are handled by one artist, like the Soot Spirits) and just surround the actors on the stage. Others, slightly larger, have their distinct personalities and specific set of individual behaviours. The whole experience feels like an immersive fairytale.
Both lead actresses: Ami Okumura Jones (Satsuki) and Mei Mac (Mei) , seem very anime-like. When they play, they play as we did as kids in the 80s and 90s: loud and all over the place. And when they cry… Well, these are not prima ballerinas, delicate tears. These are loud, exaggerated scenes of emotions lived by little girls, and they seem incredibly believable in every scene.
The live band, set in the cute house tree at the back of the stage, is phenomenal. They give the Totoro songs a new life, adding pop and even smooth jazz charm to the classic arrangements. Ai Ninomiya hits the notes perfectly. Her singing brought back my memories of when I was a child and I used to watch Japanese cartoons on a German channel, with no knowledge of German – it was just the only way to see these types of shows back then.
The show’s creators are very vocal about not revealing too much to let others enjoy the show (which is frankly, quite difficult because I wish I could describe to you some of the cute scenes with enormous Totoro!). But let me just promise you, once Totoro and his friends show up on the stage, it’s a moment that you will never forget. It’s visual, it’s delightful, and the fluffy huge belly of Totoro will stay in your memory for months to come.
How to get cheap tickets to see “My neighbour Totoro” in Barbican, London:
The show is on until January, and unfortunately, most of the reasonably priced tickets are sold out. But there’s still a chance to grab some £25 tickets: there is a Day Ticket scheme available on the Barbican website. Log in at 10 AM to check the availability for the day. Good luck!