“Spirited Away” at London Coliseum

Franco Milazzo in the West End
9 May 2024

If the avalanche of movie-to-stage adaptations is becoming something of a tired joke, Spirited Away may well be the punchline that wakes up the West End.


Photo credit: Johan Persson.


It’s almost impossible not to speak of this show without also mentioning the RSC’s mega-hit My Neighbour Totoro. Both are based on films from internationally renowned Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, written and directed by the iconic Hayao Miyazaki and scored by the brilliant Joe Hisaishi.

Totoro broke box-office records at the Barbican in 2022 before returning for another Christmas run last year; its next stop is the West End’s Gillian Lynne Theatre in 2025. The expectations are even higher for this surtitled Japanese-language production of Spirited Away at the London Coliseum (first seen in Japan in 2022 and retaining its original Japanese cast): the 2001 film grossed almost ten times more at the cinema than Totoro did in 1988 and won over 30 awards including an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. No pressure.

In the current frenzied theatrical climate, this means that things can only go two ways for adaptations such as this. It could catastrophically crumble under the weight of its own hype (hello, Opening Night) or take off into the azure sky like a hunting bird of prey (for example, Sunset Boulevard or Cabaret). So which will it be?

If director and writer John Caird has taken anything from Phelim McDermott’s Totoro, it is a sense of fearlessness. Both fluidly feature stunningly designed puppets and scenes of touching humanity in stories that are not bogged down by exposition. Their confident and sometimes brash approach can leave those who have not seen the films a little high and dry at times but, bearing in mind Studio Ghibli’s considerable fan base, this is an acceptable approach.


Photo credit: Johan Persson.


Spirited Away is, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland before it, a surreal journey by a young girl who comes across a cavalcade of bizarre characters. Ten-year-old Chihiro (Mone Kamishiraishi) is forced to enter a magical bathhouse after her parents Lin (Rico Takahashi) and Aniyaku (Eiji Mizuno) are cursed and turned into pigs. On a mission to return them to human form, she encounters the trapped apprentice Haku (Kotaro Daigo), the sorceress Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), and the villainous No-Face (Hikaru Yamano).

Food is a recurring theme but the real feast here is for the eyes at every turn with charming costumes designed by Sachiko Nakahara and Toby Olié’s impressive puppets. While McDermott went for size, Caird and his co-adapter Maoko Imai plump for delirious – and, yet, occasionally deleterious – variety. Yubaba transforms into a massive face that requires a small crew of puppeteers to handle, coal-man Kamaji (Tomorowo Taguchi) is presented as part-human, part-spider, while No-Face grows before our eyes into a supremely scary monster.

Caird is an associate director with the RSC so there is inevitably some shared theatrical DNA with Totoro. It is more obvious in the quieter moments and there is a satisfying pleasure to be had when the riotous visuals give way to more emotional scenes. Seeing Chihiro sharing a rice ball with her love interest Haku subtly underscores the romantic and emotional aspects of her kooky road trip.

Throughout it all, Hisaishi’s brilliant score and the creative set design from Jon Bausor immerse us in this alternative world populated by fantastical creatures. In the West End’s biggest venue which currently acts as the home for the English National Opera, there is no sense that this production is batting above its weight or not making full use of the space; moreover, one wonders how this spectacle would work in smaller theatres.

Caird and Imai have faithfully taken a hit film and created a fulsome experience that enriches the human spirit and refreshes our sense of wonder. The surtitling doesn’t always work as, while flicking one’s eyes up to read the translated text, there are times when a key interaction is missed. They don’t quite stick the landing – some tightening of the final third would not be unwarranted – but while it is in flight, this is one show that soars like a golden eagle.