This is a play in two halves, not because it has an interval in the middle (though there is one), but because on the one hand, the bare bones of it are quite average. The script is simple and formulaic: flashbacks are peppered with twee family heart-to-hearts and panto-style gags about religion, making this reviewer wonder whether Chakrabarti and director Max Webster (The Lorax) were working with a young audience in mind, before the adult themes kicked in.
Hiran Abeysekera (Pi) with members of the company. Photo: Johan Persson
The majority of supporting cast members plod through their parts robotically, with the notable exception of Kirsten Foster as a compassionate Lulu Chen. Nicholas Khan’s performance as Pi’s father is especially strained, while the odd mix of accents in the Patel family is jarring.
What makes Life of Pi soar on stage, though, is the theatrics: Tim Hatley’s set design, Tim Lutkin’s lighting, Andrzej Goulding’s videography and Finn Caldwell masterful puppetry all fit together like pieces of a puzzle to make this show spectacular – and are worth the ticket price alone. Abeysekera delivers a powerful lead performance as Pi: an extremely physical role which he personalises with wild-eyed passion and humorously curt, child-like sass.
Most of the key plot points from the book and subsequent 2012 film make it onto the stage, though the carnivorous island is, alas, skimmed over anecdotally.
Set, like its forebears, in the 1970s, Chakrabarti's narrative begins in the Mexican hospital, where Pi is being interviewed by Japanese officials about the shipwreck which left him stranded at sea for 227 days before washing up on shore as the only known survivor.
Kirsten Foster (Lulu Chen), Hiran Abeysekera (Pi) and David KS Tse (Mr Okaoto). Photo: Johan Persson
The action flits between the grey confines of the hospital room, Pi’s past life at the family zoo in India and his time adrift at sea in the company of Bengal tiger Richard Parker, following his family’s fateful voyage to Canada. The reason for their journey, escaping a corrupt government and pursuing a better life, is touched on too, and seems all the more prescient after two years of watching governments the world over flounder while dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Caldwell’s keenly observant army of puppeteers bring to life the story’s menagerie of animals in a vivid triumph. Richard Parker is manipulated spectacularly by a three-strong team, while others conjure fluttering butterflies, wriggling shoals of fish, a zebra and an orangutan, to name a few.
Hiran Abeysekera (Pi) and Tom Larkin (Tiger Head). Photo: Johan Persson
Lutkin’s tropical lighting and dancing shadows coupled with Goulding’s animated projections further evoke the shifting setting. Together, they transform the stage into a live map charting the ship's journey and later send Pi’s lifeboat spinning on a choppy sea. In one moment likely to make you gasp (then applaud), they see the reluctant seafarer enveloped fully by the waves.
Pi ultimately tells two stories: one involving sharing his ordeal with a boatful of animals, and a second, more terrible tale, where each animal is substituted for a person. While the latter is more believable, the version with the animals, it’s agreed, is the better story.
‘If you stumble at belief, what are you living for?,’ Pi points out to the visiting officials. The same could be said for Chakrabarti’s Life of Pi. Its life-like animals and mesmerising, treacherous seas will suspend your disbelief.
|Life of Pi, Wyndham's Theatre review
|Wyndham's Theatre, 32 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DA | MAP
|Leicester Square (underground)
14 Nov 21 – 04 Sep 22, Performances at 7:30pm with additional 2:30pm matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays
|£27.50 – 117.50
|Click here for more information and tickets