Review: LIFE OF PI, Wyndham's Theatre

Yann Martel's novel is brought to life in a visually dazzling production

By: Dec. 03, 2021
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Life of Pi

Life of PiLolita Chakrabarti's adaptation of Yann Martel's Booker prize-winning novel Life of Pi received rave reviews when it debuted at Sheffield's Crucible theatre back in 2019. The pandemic delayed the West End run, but it has now finally opened at the Wyndham's theatre and goodness, it was worth the wait!

Set in 1967 Pondicherry, teenager Pi's parents own a zoo. We meet a giraffe, hyena, zebra, orangutan and a majestic tiger pithily named Richard Parker. After his family decide to emigrate to Canada, they are caught in a huge storm, leaving Pi to survive on his own with a lifeboat, biscuits, a survival manual and Richard Parker.

As the story covers 227 days at sea, along with musings on Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam, the production could easily have ambled into obscurity and confusion. However, it feels instantly immersive; it is not just a story about a shipwreck, the production asks us to think about faith, spirituality and the human spirit.

Chakrabarti has cleverly structured the story, telling the story as a series of flashbacks and making small but careful amounts of editing to the original novel. However, occasionally the dialogue feels a little clunky and some of the subtlety of Martell's writing is lost. This is more than compensated by the visual awe of the show. Max Webster's direction is full of pace and the audience is captured by each aspect of the story; from Pi's philosophical musings, to his despair and fear at the truly terrifying spectre of Richard Parker pacing the small boat, waiting to pounce.

Hiran Abeysekera returns to the role of the shipwrecked teenager Pi from his success in Sheffield. He is likeable, slightly manic and very adept at playing the comedic aspects of the story, but also embracing the darker aspects of Pi's mental struggle to survive.

Mina Anwar is fine as Amma, but Nicholas Khan comes across as a little stiff as Pi's father. Tom Espiner has brief but amusing appearances as both Father Martin and Commander Grant-Jones and Kirsten Foster brings genuine concern for Pi as consulate worker Lulu Chen.

It is the puppets that will draw audiences to this show. Finn Caldwell, who also designed the puppets along with Nick Barnes, worked with Handspring Puppet Company on the iconic War Horse. He is also the movement director and creates a nuanced and convincing fantasy world.

The six actors who bring Richard Parker to life deserve huge credit, as the puppet appears to breathe, move and growl with breath-taking realism. Each joint is independent and so the movement is incredibly fluid. Mention must also go to the nervy zebra, fluttering neon fish and the friendly turtle who appears to float through the water.

The production looks remarkable. Tim Hatley's set is immersive and morphs seamlessly from a hospital to a bustling Indian market and then the lifeboat bobbing on the epic expanse of the sea. Tim Lutkin's beautiful lighting and Andrzej Goulding's startling video design create a sea so ultra-realistic that the stage really appears to flood. At one point, Pi jumps into the ocean and the illusion is so convincing there are audible gasps from the audience.

Life of Pi may not have all the philosophical depth of the original book, but it is visually astonishing, quietly moving and an astounding homage to stagecraft.

Life of Pi is booking at Wyndham's Theatre until 27 February 2022

Photo Credit: Johan Persson


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