Spirited Away | Review, London Coliseum

As I entered the London Coliseum, the sight of the stage took my breath away.

All around the arch and forestage was a lush expanse of greenery, a stunning display of apparent natural beauty, that was merely the tip of the iceberg of Jon Bausor’s stunning and ingenious set. It immediately gave us a flavour of what was in store, from this epic adaptation of one of Japan’s most beloved animated films, from the country’s best known and loved studio, Studio Ghibli.

This wonderful story about a little girl called Chihiro who finds herself stumbling into a magical world of gods, spirits, and witches, is full of fantastical visual elements which, as a big fan the film, I was eager to see how they would be interpreted on stage. Toby Olié’s wonderful puppets, ranging from gigantic 15ft tall creations to tiny 20 cm figures, alongside costumes for multiple people and many other magical effects, charmingly and beautifully bring Spirited Away from screen to stage. It feels as though the audience, much like Chihiro, has been swept into a dream world, except unlike Chihiro, we are very happy to be held captive.

There are multiple actors playing the principal characters during the London run, presumably so they don’t have to be away from home for 4 months, and on Tuesday evening Chihiro was played by Mone Kamishiraishi. Mone gave a truly extraordinary performance as Chihiro, playing the emotional moments in the same exaggerated way that they are played in the film, with over-the-top reactions, treading the line between cartoon and reality, beautifully. There was a particularly poignant moment where Chihiro is crying, and although cartoonish in her mannerisms it was still heart wrenching to behold this child in distress. 

Kotaro Daigo was wonderful as Haku, friend to Chihiro and servant to the menacing witch Yubaba. His friendship with Chihiro was so touching, and there is a scene early on where he is feeding her, that was particularly sweet. Haku’s transformations into his dragon form were spectacularly handled, with several different versions of the puppet being used, from a small one that appears far away, to one large enough to carry Chihiro on its back. 

A real standout performance was given by Hikaru Yamano as No Face, the strange god like creature that Chihiro lets into the bathhouse. He starts off as almost a ghost, nimbly gliding about the stage and avoiding the other characters, but as he starts consuming people in the bathhouse, he started to grow and grow both in size and volume. This was handled beautifully and so cleverly, and the different stages of No Face’s transformations were such fun to behold. The actor’s characterization was enchanting and captivating, both as the gentle being who communicates through slight noises, and then as the boisterous monster who terrorises the bathhouse. 

Another performance of note was Tomorowo Taguchi as Kamaji, the many-armed boiler room man, who helps Chihiro when she arrives at the fantastical bathhouse. He was a lot of fun with his spider-like arms, controlled by several puppeteers. The tiny soot creatures that work for him were adorable little puppets and a source of much comedy. Fu Hinami as the sassy and sarcastic Lin who is assigned to look after Chihiro, gave an excellent performance, as did Mayu Musha as baby Boh, who looked like they had so much fun stomping around as a giant angry baby. The baby’s mother and the main villain of the show, Yubaba, was played by Mari Natsuki, and was just the right amount of mean and vulnerable. Whenever Yubaba was shouting, her face became a giant caricature puppet face, and the quick changes for these magical moments were very cleverly handled.

I really enjoyed that this show did not try and use special effects to appear magical, but rather brought the magic to life with puppets and ‘invisible’ puppeteers (all dressed in light brown), that the audience can pretend we don’t see – part of what makes theatre such a wonderful medium.

The show’s action was all set to Joe Hisaishi’s wonderful musical score, an essential part of the iconic film. Hearing it performed live was such a special experience, and the music definitely helped to transport us to the magical land of Chirhiro’s adventure.

I should mention of course that the show was entirely in Japanese, but I found the subtitles easy enough to get on with. It does however involve a fair amount of moving your head from side to side as you try and follow them, with the titles projected on either side of the stage (London’s largest) and above the arch for the higher-level seats. I consider this a small price to pay for the pleasure of seeing this Japanese language production transported to London, with (mostly) the same brilliant cast as it had in Japan. At the end of the show, after everyone had taken their bows, Mone Kamishiraishi stayed on stage for a minute and just soaked up the adulation from an adoring audience that were standing up and cheering loudly. The joy on her face made it well worth a bit of sur-title reading.

Spirited Away is on at the London Coliseum until 24th August, I highly recommend you spirit yourself away to see it.

To book tickets visit www.londoncoliseum.org

Words Nick Barr

Photography Johan Persson

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