My neighbor Totoro; Local hero – review

One of my first revelations as a theater critic of Observer he was watching a ghost story made entirely of duct tape: a world of transparency materialized. The work of the Improbable Theater, Street of the hill 70 (1996) was hosted by Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch and Lee Simpson. Now – far-fetched – McDermott is at the heart of the theatrical establishment, tapping the Royal Shakespeare Company with his magic, directing My neighbor Totoro.

A battery of talents brings Studio Ghibli’s 1988 anime film to the stage. Tom Morton-Smith fits, quite faithfully, the light but sensational story, in which two little girls, who move into a haunted house, are comforted while their mother is in the hospital by an unlikely forest spirit. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting wraps the shadows around a sweet story bordered by anxiety and loss. As sisters, adult performers Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac have to star in some great childhood acting – huge, tripping smiles – but they end up conveying real warmth. Joe Hisaishi’s music is from time to time wistful and lively, with a peculiarly occasional echo of (“we’re all going on vacation”) Summer Holiday.

McDermott says he thinks of this theatrical version not so much as an adaptation of the film as “a sister” to it.

Still, it’s the puppets, designed by Basil Twist, that are the real lure of a show that broke Barbican box office records for single-day ticket sales. Opinionating chickens scratch the floor; soot spirits slide down the walls like ink blots; butterflies tremble in the air. The yellow Catbus flies in – perhaps a touch too obvious as an inflatable, but with a big smile from Alice in Wonderland and with rats’ sparkling red eyes for the taillights. And Totoro, accompanied by delicious and more shaking mini versions of himself, is unforgettable. This least likely of the sylvan spirits is huge, domed and soft, like a gigantic egg. His roar is the rumble of a giant’s stomach, his mouth opens like a cave, his tongue throbs. It is as absurd as it is kind.

The puppeteers flit in the action like beekeepers dressed in gray. They can be seen pushing the scenery, twitching a creature’s ears, or, beautifully, sending throngs of creatures and bushes of greenery sweeping the stage at the ends of their poles. At one point they push the veils off their faces and appear to be – like puppeteers Battle horse they were – the souls of creatures and the very heartbeat of the game.

McDermott says he thinks of this theatrical version not so much as an adaptation of the film but as “a sister” to it. There is still, and rightly so, an embarrassment about the theater that clings to the flaps of the film. In Chichester another film adaptation: 1983 by Bill Forsyth Local hero – is directed by Daniel Evans. This holds particular significance, since Evans was announced last month as the RSC’s new joint art director, sharing the post with Theatr Clwyd’s Tamara Harvey. It seems to me that one of his particular qualifications for the post is his usually outstanding way with a musical. Musical theater and Shakespeare can command large stages with a wider range of characters than usual. They specialize in abrupt mood swings and their rhythms – dialogues that lead to or are continued by songs and soliloquies – are similar.

Local hero it’s attractive, but not dynamic enough to best show Evans’ talents. The original plot – the Houston-based oil company sends a Gucci-clad executive to hang out to buy an entire Highland village for a petrochemical development – sounds prescient, and David Greig’s adaptation honed its contours. By listening to two main characters and making the part played here by the ringing voice Lillie Flynn less lively and more furious, Greig highlighted some particularly 21st century concerns about coastal expansion – not just environmental degradation but also hoarding. of houses by entrants – and made the villagers are slightly less folkloric and more worldly. Yet the strange fairytale mix of mood and time remains: here is elegy, venality and despair, digital clocks and, of course, a payphone. Hilton McRae’s well-engraved beachcomber astronomer, sitting on the beach in his chair with telescope and wise saws, looks like a precursor to Jerusalemis Johnny Gallo.

For this hymn to the sea and the sky, Frankie Bradshaw, the rising luminary of design, and Paule Constable, the established North Star of lighting, do not try to create natural elements. Instead, they suggest a space of glare and expansiveness – above and below the stage. Bradshaw’s tubular steel set is covered in fluorescent bag figures, silvery wave designs, pinks and mauves and, finally, the scarlets of the Northern Lights.

It is the music of Mark Knopfler that sets the scene and guides the audience from the United States to Scotland, with electric and acoustic guitar, double bass, violin and – cheers – accordion. The desolation of Rocks and Water has a lingering beauty. Filthy Dirty Rich has a boisterous gooey quality. The flavor of the band – without big swooping strings – is like a spray of salt that washes the traditional musical. Not, however, a nice change of course.

Star ratings (out of five)
My neighbor Totoro ★★★★
Local hero ★★★

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