This joint production between the Japanese composer Joe Hisashi and the Royal Shakespeare Company is one of those few occasions where I dare to say those words – this is a must-see. What a wonderful show.
It’s set in that Japanese land of strip cartoons like the film Spirited Away but as a piece of theatre, it is brilliant. It started as a 1988 film and tells the story of a father and two young daughters who relocate from Tokyo to the country because the mother is in a nearby hospital. It doesn’t sound that special but the house they move to soon opens up and is moved around impressively by a cast of black costumed people. It’s got the ah factor as the two young girls – played by adults – are so endearing and believable with their hopes and fears that we begin to care for them. Going to a new place is always going to be hard and sometimes even the next-door neighbours can seem a bit scary.
What is special about this production is the way the large cast brings to life the forces deep down inside us of fear, hope and the need to be cared for when we are young. It doesn’t sound amazing but the way the actors use puppets – even huge ones take us somewhere else. The stage sets are beautiful and conjure up houses, school buses, paddy fields and classrooms – a background to the unfolding story. When the central younger girl gets lost our heartstrings are pulled as the villagers drag the pond and we are taken into the fear of the sister and the father. The stage pictures are universal and exceptionally well presented and the young audiences were entranced by what they were seeing.
The world is not always a happy place but here the story unflinchingly deals with difficult things in a way that touches a young child’s heart and gives them hope for the future. I don’t think it would be spoiling things to say that there is a happy ending and we felt so much joy. When the actors who manipulated the puppets came down to reveal themselves, we realised what a complex technical production it is. The interval, when we watched, was extended by more than 30 minutes with those dreaded words “due to circumstances beyond our control.” But shortly after it restarted you forgave the wait because you were drawn again into a world where all your senses were engaged and you wanted to know the outcome.
The show is running at the Barbican Theatre in London until March so if you get a chance, I urge you to go – but give the gift shop a miss – a cuddly toy version of the main puppet at £75 I don’t think so!
I know it’s one of those shows that stays in your head long after you have seen it. It reaches parts of your head and heart that most shows can only dream of. I feel better for having seen it.