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  • Xi Ye

Review - My Neighbour Totoro

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

Barbican Centre


Tom Morton-Smith


Joe Hisaishi


Phelim McDermott

Music Director

Matt Smith


My Neighbour Totoro follows the lives of sisters Satsuki and Mei as they are swept up in exciting adventures with their new neighbours – transported to a long-forgotten realm of spirits, sprites, and natural wonder.


My Neighbour Totoro is a wholesome story following two young sisters, Mei (Mei Mac) and Satsuki (Ami Okumura Jones) and their dad as they move from the city to the countryside to be closer to the mother. The sisters meet Totoro, the forest spirit, gaining its trust and seeking its help to overcome their problems. It is clear that the writer (Tom Morton-Smith) and Director (Phelim McDermott) have tried to fit every element of the movie into the stage production. While many aspects stirred up sweet childhood memories, it also felt overly ambitious in what they tried to achieve.

The stage set and puppetry were without a doubt, the highlights of the show. There was the air of anticipation as the audience awaited the arrival of Totoro, which did not disappoint. From what I can tell, there are three different sizes of Totoro. The biggest and least mobile is used for its first appearance, filling up majority of the stage. The enormous blow-up Totoro lied sleeping as Mei climbed onto its belly, who begins to use it like a trampoline, making the gigantic size of Totoro even more prominent. However, this is the only time this version of Totoro appears on stage. The smaller versions of Totoro are equally as impressive. In fact, even the smaller Totoro puppets are still big and it is awe inspiring to see such large puppets been manoeuvred so skilfully on stage. However, the creative's choice to use a relatively small Totoro doll with the doll versions of the sisters clung to its belly, hanging from the ceiling and swinging uncontrollably at the end Act I felt underwhelming, low budget and did not fit the tone of the story.

The stage design by Tom Pye is clever, with the family’s house constructed in such a way that could be easily opened up to fill up the entire stage. For such a large construction with many moving pieces, it can appear and disappear from the stage in a matter of seconds. In addition, the Barbican Centre stage is big and it was a surprise that the creative team was able to utilise every inch of it, filling the space with life and making the environment highly dynamic. The stage hands appear frequently, sometimes discretely and other times, prominent and also fulfilled the role of some side characters. This perhaps signify that the spirits are all around us, helping us in the various aspects of our life.

Even though there are some very good artistic choices made, some are questionable. While Mac and Jones did a good job with their respective roles, these characters aren’t particularly demanding to play and it may be reasonable to cast more age-appropriate actresses to play these roles. On the puppet side, the cat bus is another iconic part of the show and it was not used most effectively in the stage adaptation. Rather than creating a magical wow moment, it felt more like a slapstick comedy, particularly the first time Totoro entered the bus. When the cat bus delivers Satsuki and Mei to their mother, it runs above tiny houses and power grids, potentially signifying the speed in which it runs and how insignificant these structures are in comparison. There is a stage that bounces the cat bus’s tail up and down during this time, while this created some comedic effects at the start, it became repetitive and just dragged out a little too long.

While this stage adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro is a faithful adaptation of the original story, it must be questioned whether it has been too faithful. Every little element of the movie was translated to stage, sometimes without a clear rationale as to whether these were all necessary.

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