Review, Spirited Away, London Coliseum, by Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

From My Neighbour Totoro, to the world acclaimed Spirited Away, Anime theatre is growing as a trend on stage and Studio Ghibli is taking over the scene. Full of Japanese folk magic and stories, the exploration of different culture is hitting mainstream and changing the way of theatre.

Studio Ghibli has a enormous following. It has transferred to memes, popular culture, a staple amongst the alternative and with all films on Netflix, crossing into the more well known. Totoro began this new theatrical stream last year, in partnership with the RSC and has lead the way to new grand and impressive performances.

Spirited Away is the story of Chihiro who gets lost in a magical bathhouse and meets strange creatures and gods along the way. She gets tangled into misadventure on her quest to get back to her parents and her real world. It is comical, strange and magical.

The story begins in a forest and so the stage is already set up for this, foliage creeping into the walls, across boxes and the orchestra pit, giving that sense of immersion and invitation. Generally, the set is incredible: revolving structures, elements that come from the floor, the ceiling, the wings – there is so much to making the ever changing scenes and this happens seamlessly and effortlessly. The set itself is well crafted and beautiful, reflecting to minute detail the scenes and colours in the film itself. It is very much as if the film has been transferred exactly to the stage, supported by exact costuming and theatrical techniques to bring the magical creatures alive.

Puppetry is huge in this piece, with standard puppetry, supported by puppeteers, to fantastic inventions using different sizes of the same character for perspective, surprising use of the auditorium, creating those “wow” moments. The larger creatures range from the building of different pieces together to formulate as one, operated by various puppeteers, to full bodied costumes. The effect is incredible and reflecting almost exactly to the film. No Face, noted for growing in stature throughout, begins as one person – the costuming and movement, almost butoh-esque and bouffon-esque, is unusual and works together to create this figure that is almost human but certainly moves differently. As it grows, more people add to this movement and large props are used. The impression is magnificent and so fantastically well done.

A live orchestra makes this especially special, bringing life to Joe Hisaishi’s well known compositions and filling the auditorium with whimsy. I say it all the time, but there is certainly something awe-inspiring of live music accompanying theatre. While the production is innovative, the live orchestra brings it back to theatrical roots.

What was also brilliant and unlike the recent Totoro, is that, along with keeping to the story almost exactly, the production was in Japanese. It was wonderful to hear original language on a west end stage and enveloped us in that immersion. However, subtitles were supplied but very much at the side of the stage. While I know the story, I felt my head consistently turning to read and unfortunately, this took me away a little from the scene. I felt I missed the beautiful minor elements and some action and likely will have to come and see again without engaging in subtitles.

Spirited Away is magnificent, beautiful and extremely theatrically clever. It is almost a carbon copy from film to stage and a great introduction to Anime but also a proud moment for already existing fans.

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