Dear Readers, we were very, very lucky to get tickets for this play, which apparently sold out even faster than Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘Hamlet’ which was at the Barbican a few years ago. And what a delight it was! The audience was full of children of all ages, most of them under 12 but a good few of them in their 60s (ahem).
I had always loved the Studio Ghibli film of the story. It tells of a father and his two daughters, one about four years old and one about eight, who move to the country to be closer to their mother, who is in hospital, suffering from an unspecified disease. I love that, at the end of the story, it’s no clearer if there’s going to be a happy ending, and the play also avoids any Disney-fied tying-up of all the loose ends. There are big themes in the story – not only sickness and loss, but the anxiety of moving house, the fear of change, the difference between urban and rural living (the family were previously living in a flat in Tokyo). I love that the whole story of Totoro doesn’t pretend that these things happen, but shows how they can be dealt with. I imagine that there could be quite a lot of conversations between adults and children on the way home from the play.
When the family move into their new house, they realise that they are sharing it, and the forests around it, with a variety of sprites and forest guardians, including the eponymous Totoro. I was looking forward to seeing how these creatures were brought to life, and wasn’t disappointed. Suffice it to say that the puppeteers who ‘wrangle’ the creatures must be extremely fit. There are various versions of Totoro, one of which practically takes up the whole of the stage. There is also a magic bus in the form of a cat that puts in several appearances.
‘Magical’ is a very overused word, but that’s exactly what it was. There is one part, where the forest creatures work together to make the seeds that the girls have planted grow, that had me wiping away surreptitious tear, old softie that I am.
I had forgotten, too, that the film has a strong eco message, probably because it’s so interwoven into the story that it doesn’t feel like preaching. A grandmother explains that the forest guardians used to be visible to everyone, but that these days they’re afraid of humans and hide away. The teacher at the local school tells the oldest daughter that there used to be bears and wolves in the forest, but not anymore.
Although there are themes of sickness and loss threaded throughout the story, it is also extremely funny in places – the youngest girl, Mei, has all the fearlessness of the very young, and although she gets into scrapes, her friendship with the forest guardians and with the local people always see her through. Her older sister is indomitable. The father is an academic, kind but a bit witless when it comes to things like discipline or getting the breakfast done. There is a boy who finds it hard to speak to girls, but who eventually comes to the rescue. It’s a story about human beings as well as one about huge furry creatures.
The cast are excellent, the music is wonderful (it was composed by Joe Hisaishi, who wrote the score for the animated film), and although there’s a lot of ‘action’, there are also peaceful moments, when we have time to gather our breath.
You can tell a lot about how good a play was by the buzz when people leave the auditorium – on Saturday, the place was uproarious, and complete strangers were talking to one another in the queue for the ladies toilet, which is always a good sign. I hope that ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ gets another run, or tours, or that it’s filmed for the cinema so that lots more people can see it. Do take the chance if you’re able.