Kiki’s Delivery Service

Southwark Playhouse, London
Until January 8th, 2017

by Richard Hamer

Southwark Playhouse’s latest is based on Eiko Kadono’s children’s book Kiki’s Delivery Service, most famous for Studio Ghibli’s anime adaptation (though a far later, far less prestigious live-action version also exists). This is an adaptation of the book specifically, rather than the Miyazaki picture: Worth noting for those coming to this intimate, South London stage expecting a dramatic, mid-air dirigible rescue scene.

But for those familiar with it in any of its myriad forms, what you do get should remain familiar: Kiki is a thirteen-year-old trainee witch, and like all girls with her abilities, at that age she must leave home and find a town of her own to look after. Together with her pet (talking) cat Jiji, Kiki makes her way to the big city of Koriko to find a new home. Kiki is headstrong; confident she doesn’t need the advice of her witch Mother or teacher Father. As she establishes herself in town with her patented, broom-stick powered ‘delivery service’, this inevitably finds her landing into trouble.

This is a charming, family-friendly production. Leaning on the original book for inspiration, this Kiki is largely a series of light ‘scrapes’; mischiefs that the teen-witch finds herself in. Events do build, but nowhere near to the disaster-movie heights of the Ghibli version. This is fine. More disappointing is that the story’s larger themes – the transition to adulthood, the rejection and/or acceptance of tradition – are paid only mild lip-service here. Without them, the story can feel ‘too’ light; Kiki’s victories come too easily, with too little personal cost.
But what is there is very likeable: The material is light but the cast do well with it, exuding enthusiasm and spirit. Alice Hewkin as Kiki is pure energy; eminently watchable. Matthew Forbes as Jiji is perhaps the stand-out. Both puppeteer and voice for Jiji, his performance is half Phil Hartman’s sardonic turn in the English dub of the film, half Kenneth Williams. It steals most of the best gags, and is a wonderful thing.

As for set and stage, the budget is low but the production is inventive. The small team do a lot with very little; conjuring up flight, giant clock towers and sequences set aboard moving trains. There is some wire-work, but – most of the time – when a witch needs to fly another actor simply picks them up. It’s silly, but it only adds to the shows simple charm.

The only real stylistic misstep is allowing one key, dramatic moment toward the end to entirely make use of pre-recorded dialogue. Flatly delivered, it’s an undercooked scene that spoiled what could have been a heartfelt moment.

So while I can’t help but wish they hadn’t settled for just child-like breeziness, and allowed some of the story’s richer, darker themes to come through; for what it is, it’s a success. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a spirited production, ideal for families, and fans of the book and movie alike. If that’s you – and you’re in London between now and January 8th – it’s worth checking out.



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