Breaking Baz: ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, Smash Stage Adaptation Of Studio Ghibli Classic, Transfers To West End, With Broadway Next

Following two sold-out limited seasons at London’s Barbican, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed stage version of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli classic My Neighbour Totoro will transfer to the West End early in 2025.

The show broke box office records during both its inaugural 15-week term in 2022 and repeated that success on its second iteration, which played for 17 weeks from last November until last month.

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Griselda Yorke, My Neighbour Totoro’s executive producer for the RSC, revealed that more than 290,000 saw the production at the Barbican.

Griselda Yorke, executive producer of My Neighbour Totoro for the RSC
Griselda Yorke, executive producer of My Neighbour Totoro for the RSC

Yorke and her RSC colleagues have secured the Gillian Lynne Theatre beginning March 8, 2025 for an initial 34-week period through November 2, 2025.

In a sense, the move to the Gilly Lynne — how some affectionately refer to the theatre named for legendary Cats and Phantom of the Opera choreographer, the late Dame Gillian Lynne — moves My Neighbour Totoro, adapted by Tom Morton-Smith, all the more closer to Broadway.

While confidently predicting that My Neighbour Totoro “will definitely have a life beyond the West End,” Yorke swatted away further questions. “With our Japanese partners we want to focus on nailing that West End transfer before we cast our eye further afield,” she reasoned.

However, with a twinkle in her eye, Yorke acknowledged that “there’s a lot of interest.”

‘My Neighbour Totoro’
‘My Neighbour Totoro’

Her observations were echoed by two of the show’s creative collaborators, its director Phelim McDermott, co-founder and co-artistic director of the pioneering Improbable improvisational theatre company, and puppeteer extraordinaire Basil Twist, who created the life-size puppet of fluffy Totoro.

McDermott cautioned that his journey around shows has proved that “sometimes a show that works really well and you go to the next stage … you’ve got to keep the pot that is happening in just the right size for the process to keep the soup good.”

He added that if “you start thinking ‘we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that,’ too soon, then you take your eye off keeping the soup good.”

Phelim McDermott
Phelim McDermott

Twist was kinda supping from the same tureen. The move to the West End is a logical one that’s “hopefully the beginning of it reappearing in other theatres in the world despite its wonderful genesis in the Barbican,” he told me.

Yorke leaves the RSC in late June to take up the post of Producer at the Old Vic. However, she’s being allowed to continue her executive producing duties overseeing My Neighbour Totoro for the RSC.

The Gillian Lynne’s in the same Covent Garden neighbourhood as the Matilda musical at the Cambridge Theatre, another RSC production and still running after premiering at the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon base in 2010.

Both houses, by the way, are controlled by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s LW Theatres company.

Of course, no one knows if My Neighbour Totoro will enjoy that kind of run!

Data collated by the RSC shows that the show has attracted huge family audiences, many visiting from Japan; film fans; and in what has cheered the RSC no end the enormous interest from anime and games geeks. And some folk are seeing it more than once.

Twist talked of watching audiences. He can always tell if they’re fans of the movie because they sit up straight and lean forward during moments in the story when they anticipate Totoro making an appearance. “They know something’s going to happen,” Twist said.

Basil Twist
Basil Twist

I know this to be true. I’m a supposedly grown-up man but I became ridiculously excited when I knew that Totoro would be making his entrance.

The RSC has ensured that, thus far, no one has put out a photo of Totoro on social media, and the RSC is not releasing any because they don’t want to spoil the surprise for new audiences.

The 1988 film gained in popularity during the pandemic when Netflix, rather astutely, acquired streaming rights to Studio Ghibli’s catalog. Untold millions watched the movies — including My Neighbour Totoro.

The movie, set in the 1950s, follows the story of sisters Satsuki and Mei, who move with their father from postwar Tokyo to their new home, near a forest. There they discover spirits and magical creatures, the giant fluffy Totoro, and a mammoth cat bus that takes on passengers then takes off into the sky.

At the heart of Dermott’s production, though it achieves amazing technical feats, is the company and how it pulled off what McDermott called “a kind of naive storytelling quality.”

The big challenge about My Neighbour Totoro’s continued success, the director noted, is not “to get too overconfident because the piece itself is about childlike vulnerability.”

McDermott spoke from New York, where he’s directing The Hours at The Met.

He and his colleagues at Improbable have embarked on a capital project to develop creative open spaces on a site owned by the Commonwork Trust in Penshurst, Kent. First task will be to renovate an old house to be known as The Host House, which will feature a communal table for shared experiences downstairs and creative spaces upstairs. ”That’s our next big Improbable project,” McDermott said, chuckling. “We want to make work there, and teach to pass the way of working on,” he explained.

“We just have to raise a few million quid for a space that’s unpressured,” he added.

New York-based Twist will return to London for a possible workshop later in the year before My Neighbour Totoro rehearsals begin again in January. For now though, he’s on the road (this week Boston), collaborating with Chinese-born American composer Huang Ruo on an opera called The Book of Mountains and Seas which is based on ancient Chinese creation myths first transcribed in the fourth century BC. Twist has designed the opera’s larger-than-life puppets, directs the six puppeteers and stages their movements.

‘My Neighbour Totoro’
‘My Neighbour Totoro’

In the fall of 2025 he’s doing a second opera with Huang, along with librettist David Henry Hwang and director Diane Paulus, at the San Francisco Opera House. It’s The Monkey King, drawn from an episode in Journey to the West and the Ming dynasty.

San Francisco is where the Twist family home’s located. It’s where, during the pandemic, he created the prototype puppet for the stage Totoro in his parents’ backyard, and because he wasn’t able to bring in outsiders into the family pod due to the pandemic, his parents, siblings and his brother’s kids helped to photograph and film the result for the show’s Japanese partners at Studio Ghibli and Nippon TV.

“It was one of the many beautiful things about this project,” Twist said, “and even the challenge of doing it during the pandemic, was that I did that with my family, in the family home in the backyard.”

My Neighbour Totoro features music by Joe Hisaishi. The show’s presented by Hisaishi and the RSC in collaboration with Improbable and Nippon TV.

‘Totoro’ merch
‘Totoro’ merch

My Neighbour Totoro’s production design is by Tom Pye, costume design by Kimie Nakano, lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun and movement by You-Ri Yamanaka. Puppetry design and direction is by Basil Twist. The production features music from Hisaishi’s iconic score in a new orchestration by Will Stuart, performed live with sound design by Tony Gayle. Video design is by Finn Ross and Andrea Scott.

Casting is yet to be announced.

Artwork for the stage adaptation of My Neighbour Totoro includes a hand drawn title by Toshio Suzuki, producer for Studio Ghibli, who was involved in the planning and production of the original movie.

Studio Ghibli will be feted with the Honorary Palme d’Or at the 77th Cannes Film Festival in May.

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