Life of Pi – Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Lolita Chakrabarti, based on the novel by Yann Martel

Director: Max Webster

Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi, and the impressive power of the images conjured off the page of a young Indian boy stranded on a lifeboat with only a hungry tiger for company, leave such a strong impression upon readers that adaptation to any other medium is inherent with risk.

Lolita Chakrabarti’s attempt, first staged at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2019, initially feels like it has missed the mark: its opening scene, with Hiran Abeysekera’s Piscine “Pi” Patel being questioned about the shipwreck that started his fantastic voyage. The initial tone is so dry, even with flashes of humorously erratic behaviour from Abeysekera, that one fears for the next couple of hours in the production’s company.

That feeling soon, dissipates, however, as Pi begins telling us his story, taking us back to his childhood in the Indian zoo run by his parents, where his inquisitive nature leads him to attend Hindu, Muslim and Christian church services. Chakrabarti effectively condenses the novel’s first third to give a striking sense of the family dynamic before they flee the political, riotous turmoil of India for a zoo in Canada that will accept them and the coterie of animals.

And it is no disrespect to the actors to say that it is the animals who are the most vibrant and vividly portrayed characters in the piece. Hyenas, goat, orangutans and zebras roam the stage, teams of puppeteers expressing their character and personality with breathtaking precision.

But it is the Bengal tiger – named Richard Parker after a clerical error – who dominates, rightly, as the antagonistic co-protagonist of Pi’s desperate voyage across the Pacific. Intricate floor projections really give the sense of the unlikely pair being cast adrift, and combined with Abeysekera’s mesmeric performance there is a genuine sense of peril in witnessing Pi’s plight.

If anything, those moments where Pi imagines other characters with which to have conversation – his school teacher aunt, his maths genius sister (Payal Mistry’s Rani changed from a brother, Ravi, in the original novel) – do more to puncture the illusion of a boy and a Bengal tiger surviving together than the omnipresence of three puppeteers manipulating the large feline.

For a tale whose whole point is to interrogate the nature of storytelling – as evidenced by a darker retelling of Pi’s journey, suggesting the adventure with the tiger is a fantasy the boy has created to cope with something far worse – Chakrabarti’s play doesn’t quite spark the self-interrogation that reading Martel’s original work can trigger.

But Life of Pi is a sumptuous, visual treat for the senses, a remarkably vivid recreation of a classic novel, and an effective reminder that sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are stronger than the truth.

Booking until 27 February 2022

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