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Pluto review at Barbican Theatre, London – ‘live-action manga’

Scene from Pluto at Barbican Theatre, London Scene from Pluto at Barbican Theatre, London
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A spate of high-profile robot deaths, a mysterious tulip and the machinations of a malevolent teddy bear with gleaming red eyes. Welcome to the world of Pluto, a sprawling three-hour manga tale based on cartoonist Osamu Tezuka’s character Atom (better known in the West as Astro Boy).

Brought to the stage by manga artist Naoki Urasawa, manga writer Takashi Nagaasaki, filmmaker Macoto Tezka and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, it’s a multi-disciplinary confection of massive proportions and admirable detail. Original cartoons are beamed into angled onstage frames, scenic and tonal changes initially occur with the frenetic energy of comic book form.

Cherkaoui’s choreography, when it occurs, is intricate and gorgeous. Dancers surround robot characters, plucking and tweaking like puppeteers, directing and mimicking their energy.

Solos inflected with popping and locking technique give a sense of strange, bionic physicality while the ensemble eddies around the space, combining serpentine grace with a martial stealth and muscularity.

If only there was more dance, the theatrical (and universal) language of which is eclipsed by reliance on surtitles and chunks of expository dialogue freighted with detail about various ministries, horticultural research laboratories and thinly-veiled references to the Iraq war.

By the second act, the pace sags further and even the appearance of a robot with massive horns fails to make the impact it should. Evil teddy Dr Roosevelt’s perfunctory decapitation draws a laugh, but it’s hard to tell if the comedy is deliberate. What works on the page doesn’t necessarily on the stage, despite lavish production values.

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Incredibly detailed live-action manga tale is let down by its frustrating pace and bewildering plot