BWW Review: LIFE OF PI, Crucible, Sheffield
Every now and again, a show comes to Sheffield that goes down so well in previews that by the time it comes to press night you've already had lots of people telling you how great it is. Standing at the Sky's Edge was one, Everybody's Talking About Jamie another (and we all know how that turned out!) and now Life of Pi. So does it live up to the hype?
Spoiler alert: It really does.
This new take on Yann Martel's 2001 novel has been adapted by Lolita Chakrabati and directed by Max Webster. For those unaware of the story, a teenager named Pi (Hiran Abeysekera) has been found washed up after a shipwreck, and he offers a fantastical tale of his survival out in the ocean, accompanied only by animals from his father's zoo, who were being transported with him.
The novel is not the easiest to adapt, given its reliance on animals and the mystery and magic of some of the things Pi experiences. This production meets that challenge head on. The animals here are rendered as puppets - huge forms that need actors to operate them both inside and outside. The choreography and movement direction (courtesy of Finn Caldwell) is fantastic, and even more so considering many of the cast have to both operate puppets and play human characters. The look of the puppets is eerie - an almost-but-not-quite real rendering of animals that works perfectly with the dreamlike nature of the story.
In lead actor Hiran Abeysekera, a star is born. He is, of course, gifted with a wonderful character in Pi, the entertaining storyteller of the piece, but he rises to the challenge of the role with gusto - with effortless physicality (the role involves all sorts of balancing and clambering about), charismatic charm and a real flair for comedy. His CV may be shorter than most of his castmates', but it is unlikely to stay that way for long.
Mina Anwar and Kammy Darweish provide great support as Pi's parents, and David KS Tse's exasperated insurance assessor Mr Okamoto is a good foil for Pi as the two engage in verbal combat during the present-day scenes, but the whole cast are great - and it's refreshing to see a play with a mostly Asian cast on the Crucible stage.
The whole piece is stunning to look at. Tim Hatley's set design quickly and innovatively transports us between locations - a zoo, a cargo ship, a lifeboat, a hospital and there are some neat surprises lurking in the design - including one truly impressive effect in particular that left the audience gasping. It's lit beautifully by Tim Lutkin's team with some of the best use of projectors and video (designed by Andrzej Goulding) I have seen in a long time. Andrew T Mackay's original compositions and Carolyn Downing's sound design complete the mesmerising world.
The production simplifies some of the present-day settings from the novel and film, focusing on a hospital room where Pi is being interrogated by Mr Okamoto from the shipping insurance company and a female associate, Lulu Chen (Gabby Wong), which is a sensible move, allowing sharp contrast between the sparse and sterile present and the colourful past with its large cast of characters (including the animals, all of whom have names).
That the show manages to conjure up the magic of the novel, grapple with its complex themes and provide a thoroughly enthralling experience in less than two hours' running time (plus interval) is a testament to the sharpness of the direction. The play isn't rushed, but nor does the action ever stall.
It's a rare treat, and one that has a fleeting run in the theatre, so don't leave it too late to book!
Life of Pi at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 20 July.
Photo by Johan Persson