Stage Version Less than the Sum of its Parts

Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 animated film “Spirited Away” won everything from the Oscar for Best Animated Feature to Berlin’s Golden Bear. That there’s an audience for a stage version was evidenced by its 2022 Tokyo run selling out in four minutes. Now in London and performed in Japanese with English surtitles, sales are brisk in the 2,263-seat London Coliseum with the limited run now extended by five weeks. But what this giant, three-hour spectacle proves above all is that while being faithful is wholly admirable in a relationship, it’s not the most theatrical answer to the question of how to adapt a masterpiece.

It was Disney who cornered the market in staging animated classics, initially with “Beauty and the Beast” but then, in a shrewd move, with the considerably more uniquely theatrical “The Lion King” which is far more than simply a copy. There are moments where you feel “Spirited Away” wants to be more like the latter. But for all the flair of the vast design team delivering “wow” moments, for much of the three-hour show — 45 minutes longer than the film plus intermission — it feels closer to the doggedly literal, copycat nature of the former. 

That much is clear in the opening sequence which slavishly reproduces the start of the film. Young Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi at the performance reviewed; the leads are double-cast) is being driven to a new home by her parents in a car on a bumpy road: Cue jolty movement from seated actors. At the exact point in the scene where the film’s title appears on screen over the action, there it is projected onto the stage background.

Happily, once inside the dangerously magical world in which our resourceful heroine finds herself, the creative team flex their considerable muscle — and budget. A vast backstage crew is in charge of everything from huge set pieces on turntables to projections, animated props and a dazzling array of ever-changing creatures and costumes worn and worked by a multi-skilled cast of thirty, most of whom double as dancers and acrobats and puppeteers of every shape and style. Toby Olié’s puppetry alone runs the gamut from solo-operated, flying rod puppets to giant figures created in front of your eyes by multiple performers, plus the flying dragon that roars and soars about the full height of the stage, the widest in London.

But the show’s biggest problem crystallizes when almost everyone is on stage for the nearest this adaptation gets to a production number. Suddenly, instead of a succession of effects, almost the entire company is working in cohesion both singing and dancing, and the emotional temperature rises. It’s understandable that director John Caird hasn’t wanted to break the action of the notably fluid film, but putting a button on the number with the audience breaking into applause makes you realize that this is the first time that the show has been not just a reproduction but theatrical on its own terms. The trouble is, it’s about five minutes before the intermission, 85 minutes into the show.

The less expository second half finally begins to deliver on emotional weight especially in the relationships between Chihiro and her dragon friend Haku (Kotaro Daigo), and with Mari Natsuki doubling amusingly as evil Yubaba and her nicer twin sister Zeniba.

The tone, color palette and whole tenor of Jon Bausor’s set allow the film’s story to happen with fluidity and everything is held together by Joe Hisaishi’s near constant score. Whereas in the film the music supports but plays second fiddle to the visuals, here its presence is much further forward in the audience’s senses.

With only an 11-piece band with just three strings, the orchestra is better on punch and punctuation than a truly weighty, romantic string sound. But the composer’s haunting woodwind writing plus sweetly sentimental repeated melodies still work wonders, especially in the melancholy scene in which Chihiro simply sits forlornly on a train seat against a projected backdrop and worries. True tenderness at last comes to the fore. It’s one of the most simply staged moments and, as such, a slight indictment of all the eye-catching design work that is the production’s hallmark.

Trickily, the surtitles are so far to either side of the auditorium or so high above the stage that to read them you have to look away from the action. And for anyone not fully conversant with the film, reading them is a necessity to follow the deliberate strangeness of the story. The result is repeated disengagement. That’s particularly unhelpful in a show which may please its many ardent fans but only rarely generates emotion beyond recognition of how cunningly it reproduces the original.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.