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Life of Pi – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Yann Martel

Adaptor: Lolita Chakrabarti

Director: Max Webster

Life of Pi is as near perfect as a theatrical production is likely to get. Every element – script, acting, set, lighting, sound, direction and choreography – combines to provide a tour de force that has the audience immersed in Pi’s fantastical story. And it seems everyone agrees: as the tour posters proudly proclaim, it has won pretty much all the awards going, including five Oliviers and three Tonys.

Teenager Piscine Patel prefers to be called Pi. He’s an earnest and spiritual young man whose family runs a small zoo in Pondicherry in India; life is pretty idyllic. But during the state of emergency declared in 1975, they feel they can no longer safely remain and the family embarks on a cargo ship headed for Canada, taking their animals with them. Shortly after, a storm hits and the ship sinks with all aboard presumed lost until Pi washes up in an open boat on a Mexican beach 227 days later. An investigator, Mrs Okamoto, is dispatched to see if Pi can provide any clues about the sinking. He tells a tale of how he shared a life raft with animals from the zoo, eventually forming a bond with a Bengal Tiger bearing the incongruous name of Richard Parker. But can his story really be true? Mrs Okamato certainly struggles to accept it, and we find ourselves asking if absolute truth even exists.

Tim Hatley’s highly technical set design is nothing short of inspired. A large space is seamlessly converted to a bustling street and the interior of the zoo, before becoming the vastness of the ocean with Pi set adrift in an open boat. It is so well designed that flashbacks and flashforwards that require a scene change seem to just happen without one being consciously aware. This is supported quite brilliantly by the lighting design from Tim Lutkin and Tim Deiling and video projections from Andrzej Goulding that make the walls and floor shimmer and shift during storms and when adrift – it’s an uncannily successful effect. The cast and backstage crew make the changes flow, while the breathtaking puppetry designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell brings the stage alive with butterflies, fish, turtles and, of course, the zoo animals that also serve to teach Pi some of the less palatable facts of life. Caldwell is also responsible for the effortless choreography that sets the scene so well alongside the technical elements.

Lolita Chakrabarti’s script perfectly encapsulates the simple sincerity of Pi’s recount, making it entirely believable, supported by Max Webster’s sympathetic direction. But at the centre are the performances, in particular those of Divesh Subaskaran, remarkably making his professional debut as Pi, and the puppeteers who bring the zoo animals, and especially Richard Parker, to such jaw-dropping life. We completely believe the truth in Subaskaran’s childlike portrayal of Pi as he goes on his literal and also spiritual journey, learning to find resources within himself to enable his own survival – and that of Richard Parker.

Indeed, every character is rounded and believable, with the same care taken over the supporting characters as those more central to the story. It’s quite remarkable to see and experience. Words cannot do justice to the power and eloquence of Life of Pi – it simply has to be seen. See it.

Runs until 27 April 2024 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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