Spirited Away

(Content Warning: Contains Spoilers for Spirited Away both the movie and definitely the stage show)

(I’m serious about the spoilers)

We were told several times that we were not allowed to photograph or film the show but this didn’t seem to apply to the stage decor before the show started.

When Cuddles suggested the stage version of Spirited Away I was excited but not really able to think about what it might be like. We did book tickets with included bento box which made me think of going to the sumo or waiting for trains and buying the plastic boxes held with elastic bands containing karaage and rice with seeds or tiny fish inside. In anycase I had put it out of my mind to think about a zillion other things and then suddenly I was heading down south to Cuddles place and then to take the train into London proper.

She had indeed booked us good seats, or at least reasonably priced seats with a decent view! I was pretty happy with the sushi offered although it wasn’t the bento boxes I had fantasised about and by the time we got there there wasn’t much choice. Still the onigiri was the fact sort and the dorayaki wasn’t stuffed full of all the preservatives ever. Turns out I like chocolate dorayaki if the chocolate custard is pretty fresh. Think I might get myself some karaage next week though, I am left hankering for it.

As I said I hadn’t really thought about what a stage version of Spirited Away would be, so when the announcement came, in Japanese, that we could take our seats I thought it was a nice bit of atmosphere but it hadn’t occurred to me, a proponent of subs over dubs, that the whole performance would be in Japanese. Thinking back this seems like a weird oversight on my part given that I have more often watched Spirited Away in Japanese than English.

I did not fed the owl until the train back with Cuddles but honestly I think the surtitled performance covered my Japanese practice. I am glad that I’m pretty familiar with the film though and have some basics in my head. In anycase it turned out that the whole film was transposed onto the stage and I loved it. That soundtrack is wonderful anyway and it completely carried me into the play. The body language of all the actors was brilliant (I’ll get to No-Face in a bit, his was especially good) but the physicality of the actors as

千尋 and her parents driving into the abandoned theme park was really good. That combined with revolving sets, projected imagery and lighting and puppetry just carried you right in. The parents turning into pigs was done with a revolving set and oversized masks. There were so many oversized masks! Yubaba’s head getting massive was impressive and involved multiple stage hands. To be honest a lot of the transformation sequences involved a lot of physicality from the stage hands, extras and main cast – it was an incredible show.

It also had a model train regularly circled the stage making train noises so I was obviously going to love it on some level. I liked the train carriage set in the second half too.

The combination of perspective tricks with lighting and puppetry was also all kinds of pretty. They made 千尋 see through with shiny muslin and used that throughout for water and lack of visibility which was pretty effective. They had multiple sizes of dragon puppet for ハク which meant he and Yubaba could fly to far off distances – and they were using a lot of puppets on sticks which are I think pretty traditional, not traditional like a bunraku performance but more like the kind of things I’ve seen at festivals in front of shrines.

That’s what the dancing and singing reminded me of too – it was so high energy – all the group dances – they were seriously intense. I think I was expecting it to be more a retelling of Spirited Away than an actual performance of the film on stage but to be honest I went as a fan of the movie so I was not disappointed. One thing I was gagging to know about as the actors appeared on the stage was how the soot sprites were going to be done. They were a combination of types of puppet and of course they were cute as all hell. Again the soundtrack really made things as did the physicality of the performers.

Having watched the film a lot I know that No-Face appears earlier on than I realised he did on first watching but honestly they really did that well on stage, that he’s there watching everyone get so excited for the River-God’s gold is not something I’d seen before and I think it really informs how he gets the idea to give away gold later on.

I loved how they created some of the physicality of the more fantastical parts of the film, the three bouncing heads became part of a man in a bright red thong which communicated the shock value pretty well, kamaji’s multiple extending arms were puppeted by stage hands, the baby suit… well to be honest I felt like it could have been bigger but it was all really visually impressive and I just floated away on it as the music played. I do feel like it benefited from my knowing the film though I’m not sure all the visual spectacle was totally followable without prior knowledge, even Cuddles said she found the surtitles hard work.

I think my two favourite parts for sheer immersive spectacle were the River God and No-Face. A lot of the play is all about transformation and constantly moving and shifting sets, costumes etc. The River God went from encostumed performer to mask and floating clothes on strings from the flies.

(Honestly I’m about to spoiler my favourite moment in the performance).

As the music builds and the bathhouse workers dance on the stage the River God flies out over the audience, it’s a trick I’ve seen done before but I never expect it and I love it so much. It matched the music beautifully and it was just so visually awesome.

The second thing I loved was all the transformations of No-Face from his original form to huge and then at the end as he shrinks whilst chasing after 千 – they used multiple people and different sized masks, with the multiple people dropping away from the group huddle as No-Face shrank.

Last year I went to a surprising amount of shows in London. I definitely don’t have the cash and friends to do that this year but I love the level of a London performance, I think I need to work out how to go see something at least once a year.

I had such a good time.

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