The stage is bare except for a handful of performers whose questions for director Kate Hewitt fall slightly outside the realm of “What’s my motivation?” Tom Greaves wants to know whether his character realises that the cat can communicate with his 13-year-old daughter (Alice Hewkin), even though it won’t offer him anything more than a simple “miaow”. Matthew Forbes, who is operating Jiji the cat, looks on while Anna Leong Brophy, as the girl’s mother, tries to work out when exactly she should pass the broom to her before waving her off on her year-long apprenticeship as a witch.
Fans of the Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli will recognise these plot details from the delightful Kiki’s Delivery Service, though it is Eiko Kadono’s original novels, rather than the 1989 animated film, that have inspired this Christmas show. The material is certainly durable – it has already been reimagined in Japan as a 1993 stage musical and a 2014 live-action movie. The Ghibli version, written and directed by the studio’s co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, was a small, meditative masterpiece which rejected the frenzy of most children’s entertainment in favour of shots of characters thinking, watching and wondering.
“We have a word for that in Japanese,” Miyazaki told Roger Ebert. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” The books, it transpires, are even more tranquil. “The narrative arc is gentle and slow,” explains the play’s writer, Jessica Siân, when she and Hewitt join me in their lunch break at Southwark Playhouse in London. “The film deviated quite drastically from that toward the end. There’s no blimp crashing into the town square in the books, for instance, and we haven’t put that in the play either. What we’ve held on to is the sense of this girl from a small town coming to somewhere big and having her mettle tested.” Hewitt insists that the space, the ma, will be felt on stage. “We’ve got elements of action in the play, and finding the physicality is exciting, but we’ve also been allowing those moments of quiet and simplicity.”
Most audiences will be lured to the show by the film, rather than the books, which raises the matter of how best to acknowledge those expectations. Hewitt, who faced a similar challenge as associate director of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is adamant that Studio Ghibli devotees won’t feel alienated. “We’re not out to punish the audience,” she laughs. “‘You loved the film? Well, we’re not giving you anything from it. Ha!’ There are visual hooks that we’d be silly to ignore, like the opening image of Kiki lying on the grass gazing at the sky. Yet it has to feel different enough that people will engage with it as a play.”
Then there is the question of how to stage the flying sequences. The answer, at least when I visit halfway through the month-long rehearsal period, is up in the air, much like Kiki herself. “We’re still experimenting,” says Hewitt. “It won’t be a one-trick pony. It’ll be full of surprises.” Some of the burden for the airborne adventures will be placed on the gifted projection and video designer Andrzej Goulding, though animation will not figure strongly. “It’s the suspension of disbelief that is so pleasurable,” says Siân. “It was funny for me to be sitting there typing: ‘Kiki lands on a moving train …’ Kate said early on: ‘Just put it all in. We’ll worry about how to do it later.’”
Kiki’s Delivery Service marks Southwark Playhouse’s second excursion into the Ghibli universe under its artistic director Chris Smyrnios. Five years ago, the theatre produced a version of Howl’s Moving Castle, adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’s novel, with an elaborate cardboard set that resembled the pages of a pop-up book. “Christmas is a great time to present shows that would be difficult any other time of year,” Smyrnios says. “I think there has to be an element of ‘how are they going to stage that?’ about it.” And Southwark isn’t the only theatre to have grasped the theatrical potential of Studio Ghibli. In 2013, Whole Hog Theatre staged the ecological fable Princess Mononoke at the New Diorama using giant puppets made from recycled materials. The Ghibli combination of spectacle and stillness leaves room for reinterpretation in a way that the hysterically overstuffed frame of a typical Disney movie may not. Lavish stage versions of The Lion King and Aladdin have gone to inordinate lengths to reproduce the experience of the original movies. On the evidence so far, a Ghibli-inspired show is better placed to use the source material as a launchpad rather than a decree.
The set for Kiki’s Delivery Service, designed by Simon Bejer, is a case in point. Piles of coloured boxes, which open to transform unexpectedly, reflect Kiki’s new life as a courier among the clouds and her perspective on the town below as a stack of distant squares. “The film referenced locations in Europe, whereas we’ve been looking at little towns in Japan, so we’ve sort of absorbed everything,” Hewitt says. Miyazaki drew on details from Dublin, San Francisco, Paris, Stockholm and, most of all, the charming Swedish town of Visby. “The European audience can see [the locations are] all mixed up,” he said. “But most Japanese thought it was just a town in Europe. I deceived them beautifully.” That poetic vagueness extends to the period in which the movie is set. “I was imagining how the world would have been in the 1950s if the war had never happened. You know: the world that wasn’t.”
Though Kiki’s Delivery Service has been conceived as a Christmas show, the focus in the play is on the new year and fresh beginnings. It’s rather fitting in the light of the recent announcement that the 75-year-old Miyazaki will be coming out of retirement to make one more film. “It’s a non-denominational show,” Siân says, “though in western storytelling we’ve become quite sensitive to certain things that feel Christmassy. There’s a warmth to the storytelling.” She leans in and smiles: “There may even be snow.”
- Kiki’s Delivery Service is at Southwark Playhouse, London, 8 December-8 January. Box office: 020-7407 0234.