Life of Pi, Wyndham’s Theatre Photograph: Johan Persson
Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Reviewer: Leyla Demirel
Star Rating: ★★★★★
Life of Pi is an unusual story you wouldn’t think would initially capture people’s attention – a boy stranded on a boat for 2.5 hours – a story that could be potentially tricky to tell in a way that is exciting. Yet playwright Lolita Chakrabarti and director Max Webster have done a stellar job at bringing this story – and the animals! – to life and conquering the stage of the Wyndham’s Theatre.
This show is a feast not only for the eyes but for the ears too. The creative team have outdone themselves. Alongside Webster’s direction, there is also Tim Hatley’s set and costume designs, and Finn Caldwell’s puppet and movement direction. Nick Barnes and Caldwell also behind the puppet designs, and Emma Cook the show’s puppet technician. Lighting is courtesy of Tim Lutkin, sound courtesy of Carolyn Downing, and the compositions of the show are brought to audiences by Andrew T. Mackay.
All these individuals’ work have come together to create a masterpiece of a show that is visually stunning in every way – the animals aren’t puppets, they’re real living and breathing creatures – but also the use of lighting and sound elevates the show and makes it truly immersive. The storms within the show aren’t happening on stage, they’re surrounding you. The chaos and fear of the boat sinking surrounds audience members, and the warmth and vibrancy of India at the start of the show is a wonder to see. The use of the revolve within the play adds to these elements and makes the staging, and therefore the play, that much more absorbing to watch. The music takes a scene that whilst interesting, could potentially fall flat, and makes it that much more emotive. This creativity is what has taken this play and stepped it up a gear into a true marvel.
Hiran Abeysekera is phenomenal as Pi. His characterisation is exquisite, and he perfectly encapsulates the role. Abeysekera has found that perfect middle ground between the emotional scenes that make your heart go out to Pi who has not only lost his family but is desperately trying to survive in this treacherous situation and come to terms with the trauma he’s endured, but also the lighter comedy interwoven into the script. He takes us on this epic story journey, and you cannot help but completely adore Pi in every way and similarly, you simply cannot help but be in awe of Abeysekera’s spectacular performance. It takes a great actor to be able to be alone on stage for a large majority of the show and keep the audience’s attention and maintain the energy, but Abeysekera more than takes it in his stride and commands the stage in every scene.
The puppetry in this show is a work of art. It is easy to forget you’re watching people operate puppets and these aren’t real animals on stage. Barnes and Caldwell’s designs are stunning and Caldwell’s puppetry movement direction is seamless, but it is the people behind the puppets who really bring these animals to life. The animals never feel childish or out of place, but as natural as the characters and set.
Every puppet and animal is a beautiful creation, but it really goes without saying that the star of the show is the tiger itself, Mr. Richard Parker. There is a team of people who share the role of Mr Parker. The head, hind, and heart are taken on by Fred Davis, Daisy Franks, Romina Hytten, Tom Larkin, Tom Stacy, and Scarlet Wilderink. The ability to take an inanimate puppet and have the audience tense, on the edge of their seats, and gasping in awe (and fear for the 6-year-old boy in the audience) is no mean feat, and a role they all have mastered to perfection. No detail is spared, down to the slightest twitch of the tiger’s tail, watching these puppeteers and Richard Parker prowling on stage is mesmerising.
It is Chakrabarti’s clever script work and adaptation from Yann Martel’s hit novel that ensures this play never feels flat and the energy is maintained throughout. This story is a journey, from the family moving to Canada to the boat sinking, to Pi’s struggle both before and after his precarious situation. At face value, Life of Pi is a play about a boy who is stranded on a lifeboat with some animals, primarily a tiger, and his fight to survive and his recovery after. On a deeper level, it’s a beautifully crafted and thought-provoking play about the lengths we will go to in order to survive. It also cleverly charts what differentiates us from animals, what it means to have something to believe in, and so much more. This play tells the story in a fresh way that is enjoyable for audiences of all ages and has been transformed into an energetic and imaginative production.
Life of Pi is a gem of a show that is seriously underrated but hugely well crafted. It is a unique play that really demonstrates not only the power of storytelling but how a story can be told in an innovative, effective, emotive, and creative way. The combination of all the creative aspects, the stellar cast, the spectacular puppetry, and the thought-provoking script makes this a play that will stand the test of time and still be talked about for years after.
In a word, Life of Pi is spellbinding.