Image of a stage with a sky blue set background and white text reading 'My Neighbour Totoro'. A theatre audience is seated in front of the stage.

REVIEW: My Neighbour Totoro returns to the Barbican

The record-breaking stage adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro finished its second run at the Barbican last month.

The previously sold out show ran from Tuesday 21 November to Saturday 23 March, 2024 at the Barbican Hall.

My Neighbour Totoro made its stage debut in 2022, when it broke the Barbican’s box office record for the most tickets ever sold in one day after its announcement in April.

After winning six Olivier Awards and five What’s On Stage Awards, Studio Ghibli lovers were thrilled, but certainly not surprised, that they were given a second chance to enter the enchanted world of Totoro, as the show returned to London.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production has been adapted by Tom Morton-Smith (Oppenheimer), produced by Joe Hisaishi and directed by Phelim McDermott.

The show takes the Japanese animation studio’s Oscar winning 1988 film and transforms it into a live-action rendition of magical puppetry, intricate set design and a new orchestration of Joe Hisaishi’s iconic score performed live.

Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones star as Mei and Satsuki, two young sisters who have moved to an old country house in rural Japan with their dad (Dai Tabuchi) to be closer to their mother who is unwell in a nearby hospital.

Left to her own devices while her older sister Satsuki races off to her first day of school, four-year-old Mei explores the sprawling garden.

She picks flowers and collects acorns before noticing two little creatures in the garden.

Determined to follow the pair, Mei falls down a hollow at the bottom of a towering tree and meets the giant, friendly, forest spirit Totoro for the first time, who she later introduces to Satsuki.

Mac and Okumura Jones, although adults, play the two sisters with a sense of wonder and glee, portraying the delight of childhood as well as the struggles of growing up and navigating worry, fear and what it means to look after each other.

The mastery of the creative team behind the production seeps across visual, oral and textural boundaries.

Throughout the show the set, designed by Tom Pye, is a portal to another world.

Cycling seamlessly through time and place, the stage is the dusty, field-lined road that carries the families’ chugging removal van in the summer heat and then a mystical, rainy forest at twilight, morphing from one moment to the next with beautiful fluidity.

The audience erupts into bubbles of laughter as fluffy chickens peck the wooden floor, and soot sprites fly across the house and garden, playing hide and seek with the characters on stage.

From the farm animals to the soot sprites, all have been brought to life by international award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist.

Twist has materialised each one of the magical creatures of the story, including a billowing, inflatable cat bus with eyes that shoot golden beams across the auditorium.

What transpires is a story of the transformative magic of childhood imagination, the importance of nature and the sustaining power of community.

The narrative speaks to the importance of feeling safe enough when we’re young to build our own worlds while we make sense of what it means to live in the wider one.

Just before curtains open, at the beginning of the show, audiences are invited to enter into a secret pact together once they leave the theatre.

They are kindly asked not to take or share any photos of a certain character and his friends.

The hope is, instead, that the true magic of Totoro is saved for all of those who are yet to meet him.

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