The Christmas season for theatre and performance is littered with glitz and glam and all sorts of productions vying for our attention and delight. In the midst of this swirl of festive over-enthusiasm sits young Kiki, gazing up at the sky with her cat Jiji, and her simplicity transports and engages with astonishing ease. The Southwark Playhouse has adapted Eiko Kadono’s novel Kiki’s Delivery Service into a world premiering play that captures the whimsy, magic, colour and beauty of both the novel and the Hayao Miyazaki animated film.
Young Kiki is a witch coming of age in a world where witches are not only normal, but are expected to leave their home and settle in a new town as the town-witch. Kiki herself is prone to daydreaming, over-ambition, enthusiasm and overwhelming kindness – something that charms everyone, including the audience, towards her. Once she has proved to her parents that she’s ready to take her mother’s broom and set off to find a new home, we follow Kiki as she crash-lands in a seaside town and is eventually taken in by Osono, the local baker. Bolstered by Osono’s compassion and the town’s overwhelming curiosity about a flying witch, Kiki becomes the local delivery service, paid only in kindness. Throughout her adventures, she learns about the dangers of flying too high (metaphorically and literally), taking on too much, and how to believe in herself.
While on paper these values seem simplistic and sugary, Kiki’s journey is full of heartfelt emotion and complexity, supported by the innovation and ingenuity at the heart of the production. Kiki’s British accent doesn’t feel at all out of place, especially when she lands in a town that could very easily be a British seaside hamlet, complete with thick Southern accents, local gossip, and plenty of scones and double cream to go around. The ensemble cast of six manages to make the space feel filled with dozens of townsfolk, and they bring a diverse set of personalities to Kiki’s customers.
The set is seamlessly interchangeable, comprising blocks in purple hues to give the impression of a city, balanced by clear, colourful projections of treetops, the moon, snow, and even the rush of wind as Kiki flies. There’s plenty of theatrical magic embedded in the design; the children next to me were completely surprised when Kiki appeared in the blink of an eye from within one of the boxes, and again when a box unfolded into a table with stools on all sides, and a full cream tea set. I was particularly enchanted by the sense of standing with Kiki on the rooftops of an unknown town, conveyed solely through pyramid-shaped blocks laid out like rows of houses below.
But the heart of the show is the relationship between Kiki and Jiji. Alice Hewkin’s earnest portrayal of the young, determined witch is well paired with Matthew Forbes’ masterful and humorous Jiji. The feline acts as her guardian, and at times seems almost like a child’s imaginary friend, as only Kiki can understand him when he talks. Jiji is Kiki’s voice of reason, often tempering her enthusiasm with caution and even disdain. As as puppeteer, Forbes moves Jiji in cartoonish bursts, gliding along the floor and jumping in blurred, fast blips across the furniture, set pieces, and even in the laps of audience members. But he also conveys the creature’s inner feelings, particularly when he is, to his horror, accidentally swapped with a toy cat. When Kiki loses faith in herself and in her magic, Jiji’s speech turns back into meows, and suddenly we see less and less of him. Kiki’s journey of self-esteem and growing up also means letting Jiji go, and we feel her heartbreak as we have come to love Jiji too.
In many ways, this show has a lot to stand up to: the novel is an internationally acclaimed best-seller, and my own familiarity with Kiki comes from Hayao Miyazaki’s unique, unmatched animation full of rich colour, glorious imagination, and simple, quiet charm. Besides the acclaim, Kiki already holds a special place in the hearts of children and adults all over the world. After all, I grew up with Kiki, wishing very much that flying was as easy as believing in oneself. Her trademark black smock-like dress and oversized red bow are a go-to for Halloween costumes and fancy dress parties, and Jiji is a very popular stuffed animal. And of course, in panto season it’s very tempting to stage Kiki as a panto-character, needing the audience to clap their hands to help her fly.
Eiko Kadono herself wonders in the programme notes, “This winter, Kiki will fly half way around earth to London. What kind of landing will Kiki make in the homeland of Shakespeare?” But part of the joy of Kiki is believing in her for who she is – wherever she lands.
Kiki’s Delivery Service in on at the Southwark Playhouse until 8 January 2017. Click here for more details.