Witness the wondrous world of My Neighbour Totoro: A 5/5 theatrical marvel

My Neighbour Totoro's fuzzy, puppet-filled wonder is an alluring dive into Studio Ghibli

Anya Ryan, 10th December 2023

Sometimes going to the theatre can feel like a warm hug - and that is exactly what this miraculous RSC stage adaptation of the iconic Studio Ghibli film, My Neighbour Totoro is. Loveable, moving, and sprouting with imagination, it takes the genius story and transforms it into a thing of visual wonder.

Focusing on the relationship of two young sisters, the play follows the film’s narrative quite closely - although it is jam-packed with new creativity. Accompanied by their father, they move into a remote sylvan home after their mother falls sick during the post-war years in Japan. A lot of the plot involves exploring the local area and meeting various fantastical woodland creatures - but while nothing much actually happens, it is told with such spirit and beauty you’d be hard-pushed not to be drawn in.

Here, a lot of the charm comes from the two sisters - played wonderfully by Mei Mack and Ami Okumura Jones. Although both are long past their infant years, in reality, they transform their bodies into the shape of young children with apparent ease. Dressed in oversized costumes, they look suitably tiny - but Mack’s abilities to waddle, wail and cling to her sleeves in the exact way a little girl would is a skill that deserves endless praise. In this production she is pitch-perfect.

But of course, for fans of the film, it is the beloved Totoro - who has become something of a pop culture legend since the film’s release in 1988 - that they’ll be waiting to see. And in Phelim McDermot‘s production, he crashes to life in the form of a giant, fuzzy and totally infectious puppet. While he might be lion-sized and have a roar to match, Totoro is a friend. All shaggy, with grinning teeth and a flapping soft pink tongue - he becomes the girls’ sort of make-believe protector and is greeted by many oo’s and ahh’s from the audience. He can only be seen by children - is he their imaginary friend?

Whatever he is, Totoro and his world are a marvel. And the puppets, created by Basil Twist and Mervyn Miller are a work of art. People in all black get ups, walk on to animate corn fields, butterflies, views of Tokyo and flapping chickens - all of it is a colourful illusion you won’t want to look away from for even a second. Best of all, is the magical moving catbus, that has fluorescent eyes and feels somewhere between something out of a dream or a nightmare. With such a rush of character and vivid storytelling, it feels like we’ve stepped into the pages of a picture book.

Music by Will Stuart rattle tattles underneath it all, and there is delight in the show’s clear adoration for its source material. Even at the start, credits complete with animated letters roll, much like they would in the cinema. For Studio Ghibli fanatics this is an absolute must-see, but I’d defy anyone not to leave the theatre a little bit lighter. This is a joyous, sweet and terrifically peculiar production, made with wizardiness and might.