Life of Pi review – animals star in this puppet show

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Life of Pi had a first life as Yann Martel’s award-winning Booker novel and a second as Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning film. The two were quite captivating. Now comes playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage performance (premiered in Sheffield in 2019) on Pool ‘Pi’ Patel, the son of Pondicherry zookeeper who claims to have survived a shipwreck in a life raft with a Bengal tiger in tow.

The magic here lies firmly in the aesthetic, from the teeming menagerie of large-scale puppets, beautifully crafted by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, to the visual effects that surge, dazzle and ripple like ocean waves (staging by Tim Hatley with video design by Andrzej Goulding and lighting by Tim Lutkin).

The script and characterization are caught off guard in comparison: “I had a terrible trip,” Pi says from his hospital bed at first (the framing device here is different from the book and the movie). It’s meant to be ironic but, like much of the dialogue, lands with a thud.

Martel’s original and unreliable storytelling gave us enough space decide if Pi’s story was one of hope, faith and tiger taming or one of survivor’s guilt, trauma and delusion. His subtle explorations of truth and the necessary comforts of the imaginary are presented as sound bites about God, the beauty of the world, and storytelling.

Animal Magic… a Life of Pi puppet designed by Caldwell and Nick Barnes. Photography: Johan Persson

The visual effects seem to rival, and ultimately drown out, the quieter, more philosophical elements of the drama, not leaving enough room for Pi’s existential rumination, which is key to his narrative.

As Pi, Hiran Abeysekera looks every inch the modest man-boy and is incredibly light on his feet. He plays him as a 17-year-old survivor with PTSD in hospital and a mildly manic castaway on the boat. He’s good at raising alarm bells in the highs of adrenaline and whooping cough, but seems tense and overworked in the sweetest moments.

The characters on the whole are vividly drawn but ironed in a caricatural flatness, and the tone between them is barking and strident. Pi’s father (Nicholas Khan) has a touch of Basil Fawlty, his mother (Mina Anwar) and sister (Payal Mistry) lack distinction, and the auxiliary characters look like cardboard cutouts. As a children’s show, the jokes hold, but an older audience feels the lack of a thinner, more subtle script to cope with the fancy visuals.

Still, under the direction of Max Webster, the scene is full of energy and surprise. “Once upon a time,” Pi says, as he takes us on the first of many flashbacks, which transform the scene in seconds. There’s a flurry of butterflies, a starry sky, schools of iridescent fish, and immersive storms tearing the ends of the stage apart.

Zebras, giraffes, hyenas and turtles are sublimely manipulated, transporting us to the family zoo and then to the high seas. The first sight of Richard Parker, the tiger, is a breathtaking moment and mimics the CGI effects of Lee’s film. The liferaft rises from the ground and the rear windshield opens in the middle, like a suitcase, as the family sets out for Canada. These animals and effects are a marvel to see and become the real stars of this show.

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