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Lyn's Lowdown on Improbable

Lyn's Lowdown on Improbable

Lyn's Lowdown on Improbable cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner clues you in on one of the companies behind the staging of My Neighbour Totoro

Why should I know them?

You should know them because the company are co-producers on the RSC version of the massive Studio Ghibli animated fantasy film, My Neighbour Totoro, which was a huge sell-out hit last autumn and which returns to the Barbican later this year.

If you haven’t heard of the movie (where have you been?) your kids—grown and young—will be fans. They have probably already got the pyjamas and the backpack. Improbable’s maverick co-artistic director, Phelim McDermott, who is a bit of a theatrical wizard, directs. Improbable is a company that seldom fails to live up to its name: the work is often unlikely, always risky, and frequently full of unexpected joy.

Oh, and if that doesn’t tempt you, then the fact that the production was the runaway success at this year’s Olivier Awards certainly should. In the longer term, this could turn out to be as big a success for the RSC as Matilda, another show very much aimed at family audiences.

Who is Totoro?

Looks like a massive, grey rabbit-like creature, but actually it’s the spirit of the forest.

From My Neighbour Totoro. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.

Oh, so all quite cutesy kid’s movie stuff then?

No, the cuteness is cut with something deeper, perhaps more spiritual. What Totoro is definitely not is the god of death, a fan theory that circulated a few years back but was quashed by Studio Ghibli. Mind you, the movie can be quite dark, but that hasn’t hampered McDermott and Improbable, who once—rather improbably—made a fascinating and oddly entertaining show called Coma, inspired by the work of physicist turned Jungian analyst, Arnold Mindell, who proposed those in a coma are not absent but travellers into the unknown.

So, is this spirit of the forest in good hands?

It is. Along with Complicite, Improbable are one of the UK’s great theatre companies, and in both cases, there is a real playfulness about the work they produce and the way they make it. At the heart of Improbable’s practise, you’ll often find puppets, improvisation, newspaper, and lots of sticky tape.

Sticky tape?!

Yep, sticky tape is a much underrated theatrical tool and very good for improvising with, and improvising is what this company does so well. But Improbable have used it to conjure the Forest of Arden in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in huge outdoor shows such as Sticky, and both newspapers and sticky tape make a significant contribution to McDermott’s internationally acclaimed staging of the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha, which has travelled the world from the ENO to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was also acting RSC supremo Erica Whyman’s first professional production, so Improbable were an obvious partner when Totoro became a potential project.

From My Neighbour Totoro. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.

Nonetheless, it sounds as if their process could be a bit shambolic.

There’s no shame in being a bit shambolic in the process. So much theatre, particularly productions of scale, is overly slick and locked down. They take no risks. But Improbable have often said that it is only by risking being almost bad that you can make something really good. The line between failure and genius is, after all, a very narrow one.

Not all producers understand that and are prepared to hold their nerve. The brilliant Michael Morris was with the 1998 junk opera hit Shock-Headed Peter, a show created by Improbable with The Tiger Lilies about wayward children meeting sticky ends, which was described by critics as "the best thing since sliced thumb." But years later, McDermott was sacked from the helm of The Adams Family Musical just before it was due to open on Broadway. Afterwards, he said: "It was hard having a really public failure and knowing everybody knew, and it took me three years to recover. But the best thing that came out of it was I stopped believing my own publicity." Thank goodness the RSC held their nerve with Totoro, a project several years in the making, because it has paid real dividends.

So why should I book for My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican?

Because it not only translates the magic of the movie to the stage but reinvents it.

What should I say about Improbable?

I heard that the company is wildly influenced by the work of improvisation guru Keith Johnstone.

What shouldn’t I say?

Have you seen the new range of Totoro wallpaper?

Cover image from My Neighbour Totoro which returns to London's Barbican Centre this autumn. Tickets found here.

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Lyn Gardner

New tips and reviews every week. If you're looking for innovative theatre, you've come to the right place.
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