One of my first revelations as the theatre critic of the Observer was watching a ghost story made entirely out of sticky tape: a world of transparency materialised. The work of Improbable Theatre, 70 Hill Lane (1996) was led by Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch and Lee Simpson. Now – improbably – McDermott is at the centre of the theatrical establishment, touching the Royal Shakespeare Company with his wizardry, directing My Neighbour Totoro.
A battery of talent brings Studio Ghibli’s 1988 anime film to the stage. Tom Morton-Smith adapts, quite faithfully, the slight but resounding story, in which two small girls, moving to a haunted house, are comforted while their mother is in hospital by an unlikely forest spirit. Lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun winds shadows around a sweet tale edged with anxiety and loss. As the sisters, adult performers Ami Okumura Jones and Mei Mac have to do some big Child Acting – massive smiles and scampers – but end by transmitting real warmth. Joe Hisaishi’s music is by turns wistful and bouncy, with an occasional peculiar echo of (“we’re all going on a”) Summer Holiday.
Still, it is the puppets, designed by Basil Twist, that are the real pull of a show that broke the Barbican box-office records for ticket sales in a single day. Opinionated chickens scratch across the floor; soot spirits scuttle down the walls like ink blots; butterflies waver in the air. The yellow Catbus flies in – perhaps a touch too obvious as an inflatable, but with a great Alice in Wonderland grin, and with the glittering red eyes of mice for rear lights. And Totoro – accompanied by delectable, more quivering mini-versions of himself – is unforgettable. This least likely of sylvan sprites is huge and domed and fluffy, like a giant egg cosy. His roar is the rumble of a giant’s stomach, his mouth cracks open like a cave, his tongue pulsates. He is as absurd as he is kind.
Puppeteers flit through the action like grey-clad beekeepers. They can be seen pushing the scenery, making the ears of a creature twitch, or – beautifully – sending bevies of creatures and clumps of vegetation sweeping across the stage at the end of their rods. At one point they push the veils away from their faces and seem to be – as the puppeteers in Warhorse were – the souls of the creatures and the real pulse of the play.
McDermott says he thinks of this stage version as being not so much an adaptation of the film as “a sister” to it. There is still – and rightly – caginess about theatre clutching the coat-tails of film. At Chichester another movie adaptation – of Bill Forsyth’s 1983 Local Hero – is directed by Daniel Evans. This has particular significance, since Evans was last month announced as the new joint artistic director of the RSC – sharing the post with Tamara Harvey of Theatr Clwyd. It seems to me that one of his particular qualifications for the post is his usually tremendous way with a musical. Music theatre and Shakespeare can command big stages with a wider-than-usual range of characters. They specialise in abrupt shifts of mood, and their rhythms – dialogue leading up to or carried on by songs and soliloquies – are similar.
Local Hero is appealing, but not dynamic enough for the best display of Evans’s talents. The original plot – Houston-based oil company sends Gucci-clad executive loafering over to buy an entire Highland village for a petrochemical development – looks prescient, and David Greig’s adaptation has sharpened its edges. Axing two main characters, and making the part played here by soaring-voiced Lillie Flynn less frisky and more furious, Greig has brought out some particularly 21st-century concerns about coastal expansion – not only environmental degradation but house-snatching by incomers – and made the villagers slightly less folksy and more worldly. Yet the strange fairytale jumble of mood and time remains: here is elegy, venality and despair, digital watches and, of course, a coin-slot phone box. Hilton McRae’s nicely etched astronomer-beachcomber, sitting on the strand in his armchair with telescope and wise saws, looks like a forerunner of Jerusalem’s Johnny Rooster.
For this hymn to sea and sky, Frankie Bradshaw, rising design luminary, and Paule Constable, established lodestar of lighting, do not try to create natural features. They suggest instead a space of dazzle and expansiveness – above and below the stage. Bradshaw’s tubular-steel set is covered by fluorescent stock-market figures, by the silvery pattern of waves, by the pinks and mauves and, eventually, scarlets of the northern lights.
It is Mark Knopfler’s music that makes landscape and steers the audience from the States to Scotland, with electric and acoustic guitar, double bass, fiddle and – hurrah – accordion. The bleakness of Rocks and Water has a lingering beauty. Filthy Dirty Rich has a boisterous sticking quality. The tanginess of the band – no big swooping strings – is like a spray of salt washing the traditional musical. Not, though, quite a turning of the tide.
Star ratings (out of five)
My Neighour Totoro ★★★★
Local Hero ★★★