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My Neighbour Totoro, Barbican, RSC, 2022
Photo by Manuel Harlan

“We made a different Cat Bus a day for five days”: inside the RSC’s ‘My Neighbour Totoro’

The RSC’s epic adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s cult film is the biggest show of the year. Writer Tom Morton-Smith explains how they made it

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Back in 2014, playwright Tom Morton-Smith scored a huge hit for the RSC with his play ‘Oppenheimer’, a three-hour epic about father of the atomic bomb J Robert Oppenheimer. The RSC asked if he had an idea for something else – this time, a family show. 

‘I’d never thought about doing one before,’ he says, ‘but I immediately said: I want to do “My Neighbour Totoro”.‘

Background time! ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ was the third film by the legendary Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. Released in 1988, it’s set in 1950s Japan and follows young sisters Satsuki and Mei when they move to the countryside with their father in order to be closer to their fragile, hospital-bound mother. While exploring their new surroundings, the girls come into contact with a fantastical world just beneath the surface of their own. Among other things they encounter a strange, rotund forest spirit named Totoro; weirder still, they are picked up one rainy night by a lightning-quick, four-legged cat/bus hybrid (aka ‘The Cat Bus’) that’s invisible to normal people.

It has this gentle, atmospheric kind of beauty to it,’ says Morton-Smith. ‘I grew up in the countryside myself, the idea of running around in the woodlands always really spoke to me. It’s kind of unlike any other animated movie, which are usually about big explosions and spectacle. Most of “Totoro” is about the every day, but with these fantastical elements that come in every now and then. I love how they sit next to each other.’

My Neighbour Totoro, 2022
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Ghibli has, however, been historically wary of allowing stage adaptations. Indeed, it basically hasn’t (though some of the source texts made famous by the studio have been adapted). For whatever reason, though, it’s recently mellowed. A Japanese version of its biggest hit ‘Spirited Away’ ran in Tokyo this summer. And just a few months after Morton-Smith had his meeting with the RSC, Ghibli’s longtime composer Joe Hisaishi got in touch with the company. He’d loved its stage version of Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ and was interested in knowing if it might be open to doing a stage version of… ‘My Neighbour Totoro’. As it turned out, the RSC had just the writer.

But how do you adapt something so magical?

’I knew that if you got the humanity of it right, the fantastical stuff would find a way to engage the audience’s imagination,‘ Morton-Smith says. ‘I didn’t know how you’d do Tototo or the Cat Bus. I just wrote: “a Cat Bus enters”; “Totoro is there”. Nobody ever came back and said: can you rewrite this so it’s not so fantastical?’ 

What he didn’t realise was how big a show it was going to become. ‘I just assumed it would be a Christmas show at the RST,’ he says, referring to the RSC’s main Stratford-upon-Avon theatre. ’Which is still a pretty big show. But then it just snowballed and snowballed’.

It’s the all-time fastest-selling show at the Barbican since Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘Hamlet’

That’s an understatement. ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ is easily the biggest theatre show of the year in London, the country and probably anywhere on the planet. It’s the fastest-selling show of all time at the Barbican (dethroning Benedict Cumberbatch’s blockbuster ‘Hamlet’). It’s directed by leftfield stage royalty Phelim McDermott. It has the full support of Hisaishi, and features both his songs from film and extra ones that were written for it but didn’t make the cut (they’ll be performed by an onstage band, not the actors). It’s already been lauded for its vast cast of British East Asian talent. And it has puppets designed by the great Basil Twist and built at the legendary Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop in LA. Or at least, I’m told it does: I haven't seen the show yet, and there will be no images released of either Totoro or the Cat Bus in order to not diminish the magic for audiences. 

‘I think during one of our puppet workshops we made a different Cat Bus a day for five days!’ Morton-Smith says. ‘The puppet makers were working very hard. There are moments where it feels like we capture the essence of the film: the Bus Stop scene is very satisfying, the entrance of the Cat Bus is very satisfying. But it’s not a facsimile of the film. I think the audience is equally impressed by how imaginative we’ve been in translating them to something that could physically exist.’

My Neighbour Totoro, 2022
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Morton-Smith’s version is longer and talkier than the film. But it’s the same story, the same characters, the same quirky otherworldly beings. It would be hubristic to aim for anything different. Physically manifesting Totoro in the room is magic enough. Reviews won’t come in until after this article is published, but social media responses from previews have been universally glowing, which strongly suggests they’ve nailed the puppets, because if they hadn’t, people would be kicking off.

An interesting thing about Ghibli’s works is that until they became widely available via Netflix in 2020 they were – in the UK, anyway – more the preserve of adult hipsters who’d tracked down the DVDs than true childhood staples. The RSC’s ‘Totoro’ is a family show, aimed at ages six plus. But I’m interested in who Morton-Smith is writing for: millennial parents who got into the films in their twenties? Or their kids?

‘The best thing about Pixar or ”Lord of the Rings” or any of those things is that they’re great works of art’ he says. ‘That’s what Ghibli is, the fact it’s made for kids doesn't mean you’re dumbing down.

‘I think what I get from Ghibli films and what I specifically get from “Totoro” is that it’s a film I wished I’d had when I was a kid. Now I’ve got a two-and-a-half-year-old son  and he’s obsessed with them - which is very lucky, because Totoro is going to be a big part of his life, I think.’

‘My Neighbour Totoro’ is at the Barbican. Until Jan 21 2023.

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