With its fantastical creatures and striking images, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 animated film My Neighbor Totoro might appear unstageable but director Phelim McDermott has embraced the challenge and, with his creative team, devised a magical show full of charm and moments of sublime beauty. Adapted by Tom Morton-Smith, it is a 1950s-set fable of two girls moving with their father to an old house to be close to their mother who is being treated in a nearby hospital. Uprooted from the city, the girls discover a hidden, surreal world within the natural landscape, led by the titular forest creature who becomes their friend as they struggle with anxieties about their mum.

Thanks to production designer Tom Pye, My Neighbour Totoro fills the large stage of the Barbican Theatre with its woodland setting and the spectacular creatures who have been brought to life by puppetry designer Basil Twist. Whether you are unfamiliar with the film (like me) or a fan, the arrival of these creatures brings a real wow factor which unsurprisingly elicits rounds of applause. But the production succeeds not just because of the puppets, with a strong cast including Ami Okumura Jones as the older, 10-year-old sister Satsuki, Nino Furuhata as her school friend Kanta, Dai Tabuchi as their father, Haruka Abe as their mother, and Jacqueline Tate as Granny. However, the stand-out performance is Mei Mac as Mei, brilliantly capturing the highs and lows of being a four-year-old with both comedy and pathos.

Although not a musical, the show is given extra power through being soundtracked by songs performed by a live band with singer Ai Nakagawa. Based on Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack for the original film, the music – orchestrated by Will Stuart – is a fusion of western and more traditional Japanese styles but works best when Nakagawa sings in Japanese. The story has the simplicity of a modern fairy tale but is lifted by a unique and wondrously weird imagination that makes this a family show with enough spectacle and feel-good joy to win over the most hard-nosed adult.

My Neighbour Totoro runs at the Barbican Theatre in London until 21 January 2023.