Part of the brilliance of Eiko Kadono’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, adapted into a film by Hayao Miyazaki, is how truly it resonates with the feeling of growing up. As a young witch, Kiki must do a sort of rumspringa journey away from home. She finds the seaside town Koriko and, after a few mishaps, starts up a delivery service, using her broom to fly at top speeds to the delight of her customers.
But it’s not a straightforward narrative about overcoming a few initial obstacles to find total happiness in new surroundings. Instead, it meanders and twists and is appropriately unsteady, mimicking how it actually feels to move away from home. Kiki faces multiple challenges, some triumphs and some setbacks. All of these are taxing, the most being the loss of her magic and the ability to fly (an interesting comparison to the feelings of depression). The most resonant, however, is Kiki’s search for that thing that she left, the rooted stability of home, and recognising that such comfort is, for her, a thing of the past.
Jessica Siân has smartly adapted the story for the stage, retaining much of its original magic. Kate Hewitt’s direction is tight and efficient: she chooses a tempo that works well for a children’s story but injects enough meditative moments (as well as some that are slightly too quaint) for some truly poignant reflection. Kiki flies in all sorts of different ways, sometimes with the help of her fellow actors; it’s a charming and practical decision that maintains the pace of the storytelling.
Costumes are bright and colourful amidst a picturesque town that sits by the seaside. Set designer Simon Bejer does a brilliant job of making the world as magical as Kiki’s flying, with pastel boxes ingeniously transforming into a dinner table, amongst other things. There’s an elegance to the design that fosters a feeling of romanticism and nostalgia. It echoes a childhood that’s not too far away from our own, and yet it is still fun and fresh.
The ensemble are nimble on their feet, playing all of the Koriko citizens Kiki encounters. Slick and engaging, they keep the energy level at high, with touches of classic (if not cheesy) comedy throughout. Jennifer Leong is sincere and heartwarming as Kiki, while Matthew Durkan’s Tombo is adorably earnest and heartfelt.
Only a perplexing and unfortunate decision to use computer animation at the peak of the drama undoes some of the magic that came before. It feels clunky and incoherent with the rest of the aesthetic so meticulously cultivated. So too do the garishly lime-green eyes of Jiji the cat, puppeted by Thomas Gilbey, that light up like neon lights — a jarring contrast to the surrounding soft hues.
But still, for a story about a young witch who uses her magic to deliver parcels, Kiki’s Delivery Service is so oddly moving. It hits on a particularly significant time of moving on and growing up, and while acknowledging that the journey is neither simple nor fixed, it encourages resilience and reflection, as well as laughter, in difficult times.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is on until 3 September 2017 at the Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more details.