I find it very cheering that a time of the year that is known for dull rehashes of the simplest kind of children’s stories is also somehow forming the coating in the petri dish from which many other works of theater are growing; not just the old favorites of Aladdin and Cinderella, but the expansion of the Panto form with Harry Potter (entering into the canon of proper fairy tales, although done as “Hairy Poppers” it’s obviously not meant for a kid’s audience). In addition at the Southwark Playhouse there is the introduction of an entirely new children’s book to the London stage. Well, truthfully, Kiki’s Delivery Service is hardly “entirely new” as I first saw the animated movie version over ten years ago: but it’s a new entry in the children’s stories genre of playwriting and very welcome after seeing two versions of Peter Pan in one month. Come on, people, there are other stories to be told here!
If you have not seen Studio Ghibli’s film, the story is as follows: Kiki is a young Japanese girl (living roughly in the here and now) who has been trained as a witch, and as she has just become old enough to be sent out into the world to find her own place to do witching. The training and the magic are pretty much not described (other than the fact there is less magic in the world than there used to be); what we are clear about is that Kiki rides a broom and has a cat familiar, Gigi, who talks to her. Why she must leave at 13 is also unclear; but Kiki is very eager to go out into the world. However, it’s hard for her to find a place to settle down; it has to be a place both friendly to witches and not currently having a witch. After some misadventures, she finds a place where she things she might be needed; and, for reasons that are unclear to me, decides to use her talents to create a delivery service.
The set was fairly simple – well, there was a projected backdrop which could have taken over the storytelling but mostly stayed in the backdrop, and various items were wheeled out (the cake shop piece was actually kind of spectacular) onto the floor – and the focus seemed to be on engaging the imagination rather than spelling everything out a la Miss Saigon’s flying helicopter. So we had a puppet cat, and Kiki actually being carried on her broom – but then flying with ropes later – and I found it fairly easy to let go of my own rootedness in quotidian reality and engage with a story about magic, and growing up, and both accepting responsibility and letting go. The actors did a great job of handling multiple roles – even the person who plays Gigi gets time off to be a hammy clockmaker – and, except for a scene where Gigi is shown as an animated projection on a clock, the company stuck to low tech solutions to depicting magic that I felt made the story hold together as “the real world plus magic.”
Retrospectively, I found myself wondering why Kiki would have to leave at such a young age, why she seemed to do so little magic, how it was that a world with trains could integrate with witches, and why we only find out at the end about time limits on familiars. It seemed like there was a lot of background material about this world that hadn’t been explained at all – but I doubt anyone watching it would think about it too much. Kiki’s Delivery Service was simple and sweet and provided a good opportunity to let the imagination fly – with or without a broomstick.
(This review is for a performance that took place December 14, 2017. I highly recommend it to people bored of traditional children’s fare – obviously other people agree as the performances, which end January 8th, are nearly sold out.)