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Life of Pi is a heart-in-your-throat winner

Despite being based on the 2002 Booker-Prize-Winning novel by Yann Martel and taking over the Wyndham’s Theatre after Stoppard’s epic play of ideas Leopoldstadt, Max Webster’s production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation Life of Pi should not be judged wearing the eyeglasses of high literary scrutiny. This is a blockbuster, spectacle-rich show of pre-eminent stagecraft and visual wonder rather than a think piece. As a seasonal treat to reinstate visceral delight to many of us suffering from dulled and over-Zoomed senses, Life of Pi succeeds. As an act of literary inspiration or dramaturgical prowess, this production is not likely to be an award-winner. But for inspired production design and execution and the outstanding and nearly gymnastic athleticism of its lead, Hiran Abeysekera (Pi), this show provokes awe and pleasure which I have no doubt will be a much-needed treat for many as the year draws to a close and the new one begins.

Hiran Abeysekera (Pi) with Scarlet Wilderink & Tom Stacy (Orange Juice), Fred Davis (Hyena Head). Life Of Pi 2021 by Johan Persson.
Hiran Abeysekera (Pi) with Scarlet Wilderink & Tom Stacy (Orange Juice), Fred Davis (Hyena Head). Life Of Pi 2021 by Johan Persson.

Three cast members plus alternates play the Bengal Tiger: Tiger Head (Fred Davis and Tom Larkin); Tiger Hind (Daisy Franks and Tom Stacy) and Tiger Heart (Romina Hytten and Scarlet Wilserink). Each of these performers has impressive top tier theatrical training and experience in enacting the all-important creature within the puppets created and designed by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes. This beast – an adult Bengal tiger who ends up with the name Richard Parker and extraordinarily occupies Pi’s lifeboat as a castaway for an unimaginable number of days at sea – and the theatrical conceit of its appearance are all-engaging. Caldwell’s puppet and movement direction conveys both the presence of the tiger (along with other animals) as well as unique movements and behaviours to breath-taking effect. The fact that this production has six highly trained actors devoted to a single puppet gives an indication as to where the emphasis is. All the puppets are wonders of both anatomical observation and artistic expressionism to be enjoyed on their own terms.

By way of exposition, we meet a multi-rolling supporting cast at Pi’s family zoo before vaguely referenced ‘government corruption’ force them, along with some of their zoo animals, to emigrate by sea ship to Canada. In advance of the departure we encounter a few characters who set up Pi’s spiritual ambiguity (he apparently has hedged his bets with attendance at a Catholic Church, Hindu Temple and Muslim Mosque) – we don’t really know much about his inner world but the fact he has never let the flesh of an animal pass his lips is noted and later important. On board the spectacularly executed ship – one aspect of consistently winning set design by Tim Hatley – things quickly go wrong and Pi is castaway in a lifeboat. The effects, featuring stunning use of projection (Andrezej Goulding), lighting (Tim Lutkin) and sound (Carolyn Downing), transport us to the middle of the ocean with resonance, sensuous appeal and suspenseful pacing.

Outside of Pi and the animals (tiger, zebra, hyena, orang-utan and others), the cast are not given much in the way of material that would allow them to shine. The contrasting clinical interrogation room in which a rescued Pi recounts his story in flash-back is occupied by interrogating medics Lulu Chen (Kristen Foster) and Mr Okamoto (David K.S. TSE). From their rather monotone performances, it feels as if the directorial energy was so devoted to the animal and seafaring stagecraft (which boarders on genius) that little focus was left for crafting claustrophobic drama in the contrasting setting. Away from the ocean and excluding Pi as the re-enacting narrator, much of the remaining play’s dramatic intent is murky which leads to some clunky performances and a flat feeling during these lesser scenes. It seems, in part, the challenges of adaptation were not entirely overcome through characterisation or dialogue and thus fail to deliver sufficiently intense mystery and doubt.

Nonetheless, as a show of sound and light centred on creatively excellent puppetry, Life of Pi is a heart-in-your-throat winner – leave your literary expectations at home and let your senses feast.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

After a cargo ship sinks in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with four other survivors – a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Royal Bengal tiger. Time is against them, nature is harsh, who will survive?

Based on one of the most extraordinary and best-loved works of fiction – winner of the Man Booker Prize, selling over fifteen million copies worldwide – and featuring breath-taking puppetry and state-of-the-art visuals, Life of Pi is a universally acclaimed, smash-hit adaptation of an epic journey of endurance and hope.

Long after the curtain falls, “Life of Pi will make you believe in the power of theatre” (The Times).

WYNDHAM’S THEATRE
LIFE OF PI
BOOKING UNTIL 27TH FEBRUARY 2022

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Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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