'The Garden of Words' review – this wistful, rain-soaked Japanese tale draws you in

Read our three-star review of The Garden of Words, now in performances at the Park Theatre to 9 September.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Japanese anime is having its day on the London stage. My Neighbour Totoro is en route back to the Barbican, whilst John Caird’s production of Spirited Away (an established hit in Japan) opens in April at the Coliseum. So it’s something of a surprise to see north London’s comparatively modest Park Theatre entering the fray with their ambitious stage version of yet another title from much the same origins – The Garden of Words.

The source here is partly the lauded 46-minute film from 2013 written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, as well as a subsequent novelisation of the film that expands upon the deliberately narrow focus of a movie focused mostly around two people.

And so we have a seven-person play co-adapted by Susan Momoko Hingley (who doubles as one of the cast) and Alexandra Rutter, also the director. The result represents a laudable further step in the continued reach of an eclectic venue that likes to mix things up. (Its autumn programming includes writer and broadcaster Jonathan Maitland’s latest play The Interview, about Princess Diana.)

But The Garden of Words also feels like a work in still-evolving process. There’s lots to commend, including a design that draws you into a rain-soaked Tokyo populated by different generations of yearning, questing people who have been rendered wistful, or wayward, by love.

Quotes from Man'yōshū poetry, seen intermittently above the set, help establish the dreamy, emotionally restless landscape, while dangling strands of paper suggest writing but also tears and even a wisteria tree.

As with Totoro, the domestic milieu here is marked by absence. The missing person is not, as in that show, an ailing mother who cedes centre stage to a determinedly cheerful father but, this time round, a father who has forsaken his sons. The boys, in turn, find themselves in a semi-contentious rivalry with scant support from a heedless mum (that’s Hingley’s role) whose interests lie beyond the family.

The charm of the actors goes some way towards overriding the bittiness of the writing on the one hand and the pretensions of the production on the other. Surely we should call time on stage depictions of packed Tube trains, and the sight of the ensemble reeling about the stage with parasols merely put me in mind of the thematically comparable Australian play, When the Rain Stops Falling.

But Hiroki Berrecloth is quietly endearing as the teenage Takao Akizuki, who dreams of being a cobbler and falls for an older woman, Yukari Yukino (Aki Nakagawa), who is revealed to be a teacher at his school. Brother Shota (James Bradwell) has a girlfriend (Iniki Mariano) who isn’t beyond making eyes at her partner’s sibling, whilst Shoko Ito skulks about as the resident mean girl who has it in for the hapless Yukari – at which point cue more rain.

The physical production asks a lot of its many and varied participants, from Nicola T Chang’s sound design and Rajiv Pattani’s lighting – both subtly expressive – to KENNY’s video projections that give a real sense of a teeming metropolis tempest-tossed with potential loss.

I’m not sure we really need a swooping bird to illuminate notions of release, and the piece feels padded as if pushing back against the seeming artlessness of a film whose gently capricious engagement is missing here.

At the same time, it’s heartening to see the Off-West End world deploying the full panoply of resources on view amid a climate where even the West End seems these days to be opting for the solo show. The Garden of Words may need more watering, but the soil is rich enough to hope that the material is cultivated anew elsewhere.

The Garden of Words is at the Park Theatre through 9 September. Book The Garden of Words tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Garden of Words (Photo by Piers Foley)

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