Thursday, July 18

Spirited Away – London Coliseum

Faithfully based on the 2001 legendary animated film “Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away”, this Ghibli-backed stage production is a big bet that sometimes falls a bit short but will still delight most Miyazaki fans.

Young Chihiro and her parents stumble upon a mysterious, deserted theme park. After her parents devour a seemingly abandoned food stall, they turn into pigs. Spirits appear and a young boy named Haku reveals to Chihiro that the park is actually a spa resort for supernatural beings tired from their experiences in the earthly realm. To save her parents from slaughter, she must now join the spirit world and get a job at the bathhouse.

Fresh off its 2022 Tokyo opening and extended run throughout Japan, this adaptation by RSC’s honorary associate director, John Caird, is the first overseas production of the play, running all summer long at the London Coliseum, one of London’s largest variety theaters. It spares no expenses to plunge the audience straight into the mystical wonders of Yubaba’s “bathhouse for the eight millions gods”.

Dragons, soot sprites, pig-humans, stink spirit, and giant baby…  With some delightful ingenuity in puppetry and physical theatre, all memorable characters are brought to life on an equally grandiose, revolving set by Jon Bausor, the designer behind the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games. Joe Hishaishi’s original score is performed by a live orchestra and completes this gorgeous feast for the eyes, ears and spirit(s).

Now the play sometimes stays too close to its primary material. Some scenes drag on with a pace akin to the movie’s, which unfortunately doesn’t translate so well on stage. One is never bored as such – Miyazaki’s boundless universe of otherworldly characters and chaotic encounters wouldn’t permit it. Yet some of the acting for instance prefer cartoonish mimicry over emotional reality and truthful physical embodiment, thus depriving the audience of an opportunity to experience Chihiro’s journey and be swept away into this magical world.

Both Chihiro and Haku are played on a three-to-four actor rotation over the four-month run. This set proved uneven. Kotaro Daigo lacks charisma as the dragon turned apprentice who lost his memory and way back home. Kanna Hashimoto as Chihiro was consistent in this demanding role but lacked a little specificity to make her truly endearing. Other characters stand out beautifully, such as Kamaji, the boiler geezer (Tomorowo Taguchi) with his thumbs up, the iconic Kaonoshi a.k.a No Face a.k.a. Ninja Ghost (Hikaru Yamano) and the three-headed thong-bearing fool Kashira (Yuya Igarashi). But the real show stopper is Romi Park who plays both Yubaba and her twin sister Zeniba. Unsurprisingly, the mesmerizing actress is a successful voice artist with credits like Les Mis, a series of animated mangas and being one of Helena Bonham Carter’s dubbing voices in Japan…

Also worth mentioning are the costumes (Sachiko Nakahara) and the puppetry (Toby Olié) – though sometimes a little too eye-catching. The choice was made to show the puppeteers rather than camouflage them, asking the audience to work a little harder at suspending their disbelief. The show is in Japanese with surtitles which are easy to follow from all seats in the theatre. The story itself felt more accessible than that of the movies’ – though maybe because one was already familiar with it. Themes reveal themselves promptly – greed, empathy, sibling rivalry, and identity in capitalistic servitude – making the show an all-round entertaining journey for all.

Playing until 24th August,

Reviewer: Klervi Gavet

Reviewed: 7th May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.