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Theatre review Hitting the spirits

PETER MASON mixes with Shinto spirits that are eccentric and querulous rather than downright menacing

Spirited Away
London Coliseum

 

MOUNTING a stage version of one of the most popular films of all time is a daunting challenge, but this John Caird-directed version of the Studio Ghibli classic pulls off the trick with poise. 

Wisely faithful to the original and featuring all of the beloved characters that made the animated movie such a hit, it sticks firmly to the plot as 10-year-old Chihiro tries to rescue her parents from the spirit world into which they have become locked.

It also uses all of the advantages of the stage to enhance the story in ways that are unavailable on the flatter domain of the film screen.

At times the movement from the all-Japanese cast is breathtaking, especially when no-face Kaonashi is centre stage, shapeshifting in extraordinarily agile ways.

Some of the puppetry is stunning, particularly when the flying dragon and river spirit are at large, and the set, a labyrinthine adventure playground of ladders, bridges and rooftops that perpetually reinvents itself, is a magical world in itself.

The costumery is also wonderful, with the Radish spirit splendidly pendulous and the spidery Kamaji, all arms and legs, somehow bringing to mind the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. The quiet, understated music provides a suitably otherworldly backdrop.

It’s difficult, in fact, to find fault with anything of substance, although some of the smaller hand-held puppetry, such as the frog spirit Aogaeru, gets rather lost on the huge Coliseum stage. Towards the end of the second act the first vague feelings of fatigue begin to set in, for this is a three-hour production including interval, and is subtitled in English. But the satisfying finale comes just in time, and we are moved towards it by an enchanting scene in which Chihiro takes her slow train journey to redemption.

Overall the villainous elements of the spirit world are eccentric and querulous rather than downright menacing. Treat them decently, it seems, and they will come round to your viewpoint. Chihiro, meanwhile, works through a growing up process, learning to confront her fears — and it’s a pleasure to be with her on the ride.

Runs until August 24. Box office: (020) 7845-9300, londoncoliseum.org.

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