Reviews Roundup- Spirited Away 3.8★

London Coliseum

Spirited Away at London Coliseum. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s easy to see why risk-averse producers find stage adaptations of successful films tempting. There’s a readymade audience that already knows and loves the characters and the story. The question is, what will a theatrical dimension add to the original? The question loomed large among the reviews of this adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki‘s 2001 animated feature about a little girl’s adventure into a world of spirits, especially since a number of reviewers clearly loved the original. Another comparison cropped up frequently, namely how did it compare with the RSC’s celebrated adaptation of another Miyazaki film My Neighbour Totoro.  The stage version of Spirited Away has already had success in Japan and comes to the UK intact, with added surtitles (reviews pointed out they are distractingly high up). There was much praise for the way John Caird (who directed Les Miserables) and Maoko Imai had reimagined the film for theatre, for the design by Jon Bausor and for the score by Joe Hisaishi. Opinion was mixed and, while there were no bad reviews and two awarded 5 stars, the high ticket prices brought down the Value Rating.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

Louis Chilton in The Independent (5★) was not sure if ‘one of the greatest and most adored animated films of all time’ needed a stage version but, ‘If we must have an adaptation, it’s impossible to imagine a better one than this.’ ‘Spirited Away is three hours of constant, unpredictable spectacle,’ he wrote. ‘There are so many scenes here, so many locations and characters, all imbued with a tremendous visual flair and kineticism…it connects – not just on a sensory level, but on an emotional one too.’

Gary Naylor at The Arts Desk (5★) admitted to being a massive fan of the film, so his approval of the stage version is significant: ‘Though the puppetry and costumes are visually stunning, we never lose sight of the fact that we are watching a stage show and not a whizzbang hybrid of CGI and live action. The unique aesthetic is honoured.’ He concluded: ‘going through the tunnel with Chihiro, learning alongside her…and emerging older and wiser is the key to appreciating this landmark production…not everybody will get that, and that’s fine. For those who do, there’s nothing that compares.’

For Cindy Marcolina at Broadway World (4★), it was ‘event theatre at its best.’  ‘It features astonishing visuals and sublime stagecraft alongside the beautiful, iconic score,’ she said. Like other fans of the film, she had concerns for the uninitiated: ‘While it’s a piece of spectacular beauty and curious philosophy, keeping everything in means that the 125 minutes of the movie have become three hours with an interval. Still, it rarely drags. It’s a chunky show geared towards those who stay entranced by the emotional pull of a story they already know and love.’ She offered further evidence that this is one for the fans: ‘There’s reverence in the approach and accuracy in the ideation.’

Sarah Crompton at WhatsOnStage (4★) loved it: ‘This show is so transfixingly beautiful and so completely assured that it feels like balm; it’s almost hypnotically assured.’ She concluded, ‘Everything and everyone pull together to make the entire production into a very loving tribute to a deservedly acclaimed film. It’s captivating.’ John Nathan in The Jewish Chronicle (4★) described it as ‘a production that has made no compromises in creating some of the most astounding sights you will see on a stage’. The i’s Fiona Mountford (4★) said the ‘production, which is constantly revolving, swooping and lifting, is colourful and inventive.’ Dominic Maxwell in The Sunday Times (4★) preferred this to My Neighbour Totoro because it ‘keeps ringing the changes.’ It was, he said, ‘a spectacular piece of staging with an eerie magic all its own.’

Arifa Akbar in The Guardian (4★) was full of praise, too full as it turned out. It was, she said, ‘meticulous in its visual detail and choreography, delightful in its puppetry, both meditative and whirling in its speed, and packed full of comedy and adventure.’ ‘Sachiko Nakahara’s costumes stand out,’ she said. The music ‘adds sweeping emotion and an epic feel’ and ‘The physical movement is symphonic.’ However, she cautioned, ‘While superbly performed, it is a harder challenge to animate its emotional life because it is so dominated by action and spectacle.’ In the end, she found it a bit too much: ‘it is utterly magical but this banquet of a show also leaves you stuffed.’

Nick Curtis in The Standard (3★) is not a fan of the original film but conceded this adaptation is ‘superbly done’. He liked the way ‘The actors create credible relationships with serpentine dragons, giant, rotting godheads and tiny soot sprites, and there’s a core of emotional truth behind the story’s non-sequiturs and wild tangents.’ He said, ‘The show captures scale and perspective in a way theatre rarely achieves.’ But, ‘It’s too sappy and fairytale-ish to be entirely for adults, too discomfiting and grotesque for some children.’ It was far too long for him: ‘(it) starts to pall though as the story meanders through yet more bizarre twists and turns and the acting gets shoutier.’

Andrzej Lukowski at Time Out (3★)  spent a lot of time comparing it unfavourably with My Neighbour Totoro: ‘this impressive but slightly starchy … production … doesn’t pull it off with the same panache and feeling of ground being broken as ‘Totoro’.’ And, ‘Although Toby Olie’s puppets and Sachiko Nakahara’s costumes are vivid and impressive, they aren’t the absolute showstoppers that the RSC’s gargantuan…constructs are.’  And, ‘where all the spirits in ‘Totoro’ are puppets, ‘Spirited Away’ … is reliant on human actors changing costumes a lot – sometimes it has the look and feel of an old fashioned song and dance spectacular.’  But he did like it, sort of: ‘(if) a true transposition of the film would have to take your breath away constantly, then for three hours it at least does it frequently.’

Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph (3★) was another who preferred the RSC’s show. He described Spirited Away as a ‘sumptuous production’ but said, ‘Totoro 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.’ It’s fair to say, he was not spirited away: ‘At three hours, the dream-like narrative can feel at once stretched and too knotty, and less substantial than it initially appears.’ His conclusion was a downbeat comparison with the film: ‘A lavish labour of love, then, but the magical source-material transports you further, for less.’

The Times‘ Clive Davis (3★) had a disappointing evening: ‘during this meandering journey through the spirit world my inner youngster kept muttering: “Are we there yet?”’ He continued, ‘the colours and lighting are muted, and you miss the fluidity of the animated film.’

Sam Marlowe in The Stage (3★) was also underwhelmed. She said it ‘often looks lovely. But it’s missing the emotional guts and sinewy connective tissue required to make it properly 3D, its swirling imagery and meandering narrative remaining stubbornly flat. There’s always something rich and strange to look at, always something fantastical happening; but we often don’t know exactly what, or why – and too often, crucially, we don’t much care.’ She ended: ‘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?’ Susannah Clapp in The Observer (3★) made a similar point, saying what was not happening was ‘a transformation, a dissolve of one thing into another. That needs more than the skills which motor this production: it needs a jolt of feeling. Constant animation does not always mean vivacity.’

Spirited Away can be seen at the London Coliseum until 24 August 2024. Buy tickets direct from

Average critics’ rating 3.8★
Value Rating 18 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60.)

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