Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Make of John Caird's Adaptation of SPIRITED AWAY?

The stage adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winning animation is now open.

By: May. 09, 2024
Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Make of John Caird's Adaptation of SPIRITED AWAY?
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Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away, created by legendary animator and director Hayao Miyazaki is re-imagined for the stage by Olivier and Tony award-winning director of Les MisérablesJohn Caird. The original Japanese cast perform this extraordinary production with imaginative puppets, a dazzling set and costume designs and a live orchestra playing the original film score by Joe Hisaishi.

Spirited Away tells the enchanting tale of Chihiro who while traveling to a new home with her family, stumbles into a world of fantastic spirits ruled over by the sorceress Yubaba. When her parents are turned into pigs and she is put to work in a magical bathhouse, Chihiro must use her wits to survive in this strange new place, find a way to free her parents, and return to the normal world.

So what did the critics think?

Cindy Marcolina, BroadwayWorld: The immersive realism typical of Studio Ghibli’s style comes out in full force here. Where the RSC’s Totoro was relatively toned down and bubbly, the labyrinthine city of Spirited Away turns into an intricate web of layers, ladders, and moving walls that allow the characters to appear and disappear seamlessly. Dancing flowers, wicked rulers, dangerous companions all balance out vivid sociopolitical commentary with oneiric and delightfully surreal imagery.

Matt Wolf, New York Times: Comparisons are tricky, but it’s impossible not to set “Spirited Away” against “My Neighbor Totoro,” an earlier, much-loved Miyazaki title that reached the London stage in 2022, performed in English, and went on to win six Olivier Awards. That production gets a further London run starting next March. But the comparatively streamlined “Totoro” maintains a domestic focus on a father and his two daughters throughout, and its nonhuman characters — of which there are many fewer — are easier to track. “Spirited Away,” by contrast, keeps the visuals coming until you are full to bursting, much like Chihiro’s gluttonous parents. Was I emotionally transported, or spirited away? Alas not.

Arifa Akbar, The GuardianThe music is one of the show’s greatest strengths and brings especially wondrous effects through its percussive accompaniments, with a kabuki-like feel that heightens comic elements. But more than that, it adds sweeping emotion and an epic feel.

Sam Marlowe, The Stage: It’s all very accomplished, glossy and well oiled, and performed with faultless commitment. But while its sheer spectacle may leave you rubbing the dazzle from your eyes, its slick, efficient delivery and reverence for its origins mean it lacks flesh-and-blood immediacy. It rarely taps into the transformative, imagination-sparking power of theatre as an art form – and ultimately, that begs the question: what’s the point?

Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage: The show, imported from Japan and in Japanese, was co-adapted (with his wife Maoko Imai) and directed by an RSC oldhand, John Caird, who first found worldwide fame as co-director (with Trevor Nunn) on the epic Nicholas Nickleby and then conquered new worlds with Les Misérables. All that experience and skill with conjuring epic spectacle is on display here.

Dominic Cavendish, The TelegraphTotoro has a simplicity and strangeness that works like a charm on stage. Here, the film’s shimmery sense of wonder has undergone a rather dutiful theatrical solidification – the approach is authentic-feeling in its use of masks and puppets (Toby Olié), yet a whiff of the inorganic persists.

Nick Curtis, Evening Standard: It’s too sappy and fairytale-ish to be entirely for adults, too discomfiting and grotesque for some children. It’s less accessible than the RSC’s similarly inventive 2023 adaptation of Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, which transfers to the Gillian Lynne Theatre later this year.

John Nathan, The Jewish Chronicle:  Where the evening falters is that at three hours it is significantly longer than the film that inspired it. But don’t let that put you off. It adds to the sense of a production that has made no compromises in creating some of the most astounding sights you will see on a stage.

Marianka Swain, London Theatre: Caird, who co-adapted with his wife Maoko Imai, sticks faithfully to the film, but could probably diverge more – either to trim the three-hour runtime, or to introduce fresh theatrical elements. There are some of the latter here, including an ensemble fan dance and plaintive songs, backed by Joe Hishaishi’s evocative score. It’s part coming-of-age tale, but also muses on consumerism, found family, identity, embracing change, and the animism creed that there’s spiritual connection in the natural world all around us, if we open ourselves up to it. But, beyond all the busy ideas and invention, the production also leaves breathing space for quieter scenes to play out. A sequence set in a train carriage, as the light falls, is utterly exquisite: a sort of living painting. It’s magical theatre.

Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut: A proper West End spectacle and it is really very cool that a foreign language production is taking up residence in London’s biggest theatre for four months. I’ve gone on about a certain other show a lot here, but maybe the real take home message is that these films really work on the stage – bring on ‘Princess Mononoke’, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ and all the rest…

Steve Dinneen, CityAM: The performances are excellent throughout, from the young cast who alternate roles each night to the puppeteers who expertly bring the creations to life. Rarely a minute passes when something doesn’t bring a smile to your face: characters and props appearing and disappearing through feats of misdirection or sleight of hand; small acts of slapstick or tenderness between puppets; impressive moments of acrobatics and circus skills. I haven’t mentioned the orchestra! Or the lighting!

Fiona Mountford, iNews: Director John Caird offers an adaptation that is, sensibly, highly faithful to the film; those paying an eye-watering £225 for stalls tickets are not going to stand for much deviation. His production, which is constantly revolving, swooping and lifting, is colourful and inventive, deploying a range of weird and wonderful puppets from Toby Olié, celebrated for his work on War Horse. I was enchanted by the chattering gaggle of tiny soot sprites who work in the boiler room and are expertly manipulated by a team of puppeteers.

Louis Chilton, The Independent: Spirited Away is three hours of constant, unpredictable spectacle. There are so many scenes here, so many locations and characters, all imbued with a tremendous visual flair and kineticism. The stage itself is chameleonic – mostly working around a two-tiered, hut-like edifice that swivels to imagine the bathhouse’s various rooms.

Gary Naylor, The Artsdesk: Ultimately, as with opera, going through the tunnel with Chihiro, learning alongside her as she is named Sen and emerging older and wiser is the key to appreciating this landmark production. I have seen how this journey plays out with my own children at different ages and also in myself – not everybody will get that, and that’s fine. For those who do, there’s nothing that compares.  

Spirited Away is at the London Coliseum until 24 August

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

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