My Neighbour Totoro


Stepping into the Barbican Theatre for My Neighbour Totoro, having missed the original 2022 run, I anticipated a magical evening. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of the beloved Studio Ghibli film left me awed at the spectacular visuals yet underwhelmed at the (lack of) pacing and plot.

At its core, My Neighbour Totoro is a story of childhood innocence and the resilience of the human spirit. The plot revolves around two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who move to the countryside with their father to be closer to their hospitalised mother. As the sisters encounter the enigmatic Totoro and other forest spirits, their adventures become a metaphor for the emotional journey of dealing with their mother’s illness.

The staging is nothing short of a technical marvel. Tom Pye’s set design perfectly captures the whimsical nature of the Ghibli universe. The family’s home, with its sliding screens and ever-changing configurations, is phenomenal. The giant camphor tree and the sprawling countryside are portrayed with such intricacy that they transport you straight into the heart of rural Japan. The forest, a central element of the story, is brought to life with curling branches and a canopy that seems to breathe with the story.

The real stars of the show are the puppets, crafted by Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. The various incarnations of Totoro, from a massive, slumbering beast to more agile versions, are a sight to behold. The puppeteers, dressed in black, move with such grace and precision that they bring these creatures to life with an almost ethereal quality. The choreography, especially in scenes involving the cat bus and the playful soot sprites, is executed with a fluidity that blurs the line between puppet and puppeteer.

All performances are top-notch. Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones, portraying Mei and Satsuki respectively, deliver heartfelt, spirited performances. Their chemistry on stage is palpable, making their bond the emotional anchor of the show.

But… The show’s main challenge lies in its pacing and narrative execution, which, despite the stunning visual and technical achievements, could benefit from refinement to enhance the overall experience.

The show feels slow and drawn out. This is noticeable in scenes that, though aesthetically pleasing, linger far longer than necessary, affecting the overall rhythm and engagement. The faithful adaptation of the film’s storyline doesn’t always translate effectively to the stage, leading to moments where the narrative seems to stall.

The script adheres closely to the simplicity of the original film. While this maintains the story’s innocence, it results in dialogue that sometimes feels too basic for a theatrical production. The lack of dynamism and wit in the script means that the dialogue doesn’t always carry the weight or impact necessary for a stage play. And the musical score, integral to the original film’s charm, at times overpowers rather than complements the scene. In certain parts, the music feels more like a filler than an enhancement to the story’s emotional landscape.

Overall, while My Neighbour Totoro dazzles with its puppetry and set design, it falls short in delivering a fully engaging and emotionally resonant theatrical experience. The production’s emphasis on visual spectacle does not compensate for its shortcomings in pacing, character development, and script depth. Avoid. 

My Neighbour Totoro is at the Barbican until 23 March 2024.

The Play That Goes Wrong


A theatrical calamity in the most delightful sense, The Play That Goes Wrong is a masterclass in precision-engineered chaos. This Mischief Theatre production has evolved considerably since its humble beginnings in a small pub theatre and it now stands as a staple of West End comedy.

At its core, it is a play within a play: the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is attempting to stage a 1920s murder mystery. However, from the first moment, it’s clear that Murphy’s Law reigns supreme – whatever can go wrong, does go wrong, and often in the most unexpected and hilarious ways. It’s a spectacular blend of slapstick, farce, and sheer unpredictability. The plot, ostensibly a whodunnit, quickly becomes a backdrop for an escalating series of mishaps that range from flubbed lines to collapsing sets. And it’s the execution of this concept that turns it into a masterpiece of comedy.

From the moment you take your seat, the fun begins. The pre-show antics, involving cast members in their roles as frantic stagehands and technicians, set the stage for the humorous tone of the performance. One (un)lucky audience member gets pulled up on stage and given an impossible task to do. Yes, I’ve been pulled up and humiliated – and no, I wasn’t sending out ‘please pick me’ vibes. It’s a fantastic touch that immerses the audience in the chaos from the get-go.

The genius of the script lies in the balance between scripted calamities and seemingly spontaneous ones. Character development is as much about the increasing desperation and improvisational attempts to salvage the show as it is about the characters in the murder mystery they are trying to enact.

The set is a labyrinthine, perilously unstable construction that is both a playground for physical comedy and a symbol of the play’s thematic chaos. The way the set interacts with the actors – or, more accurately, conspires against them – is a marvel of engineering and design. It’s a visual gag that keeps on giving, as doors refuse to open, floors collapse, and walls teeter precariously.

Director Mark Bell’s choreography of disaster is a marvel. The timing of each mishap is so precise that it borders on the balletic. Bell orchestrates the mayhem with a conductor’s precision, ensuring that each slip, trip, and fall occurs in perfect harmony with the script’s rhythm. This is physical comedy raised to the level of high art – it’s music hall slapstick, but with the sophistication of a Swiss watch.

Then there’s the acting. To say that the ensemble cast delivers high-energy performances would be an understatement. Each actor displays a commendable commitment to their dual roles – as both the actors in the play and the characters in the play-within-the-play. There’s an infectious enthusiasm and a palpable sense of camaraderie among them. They embrace the ridiculousness of their situation with a gusto that is endearing and, at times, awe-inspiring.

It’s a show that delights in its own absurdity, providing a perfect escape into a world where every disaster is a cue for laughter. It’s wonderful for both adults and children.  The Play That Goes Wrong is at the Duchess Theatre, London, until 3 November 2024.

© The Play That Goes Wrong 2023/24