You’re better off watching the phenomenal Life of Pi at the Wyndham’s Theatre from the Royal Circle – Andrzej Goulding’s projections half make it, and for a show with a message of togetherness at its core, you can’t afford to miss anything which is part of making it so magical.
If you’re somehow unaware of Yann Mattel’s Booker Prize-winning epic – which was adapted into a film in 2012 – it follows young boy Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel (Hiram Abeysekera), who survives a shipwreck on a boat with a male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Yes, really. Though whether or not you can believe the fantastical story is kind of the point. Even if you don’t, the mesmerising – and dare I say it, comforting – production will have you suspend your disbelief for exactly 2 hours and 5 minutes. Puppetry, after all, is one of life’s most beautiful deceptions, and under the operation of Finn Caldwell (of War Horse and The Ocean at the End of the Lane fame) it sails comfortably into the company of the greats. Watching a school of fish sweeping across the stage is truly captivating scenes, the characterisation – and at one point, personalisation – of a Bengal tiger astonishing. Caldwell and Nick Barnes’ stunning and intricate animal designs, which come apart to reveal bright ribbons of flesh when eaten, demonstrate magnificent magnitude from minimalism.
We see that in Tim Hatley’s set, which truly feels like it’s been used to its full potential with its many surprises. A boat rises up from the floor, towering structures move from market stalls, to zoo enclosures, to ship deck. It’s in the plot, too, as one fascinating story is told from the comfort of a bed – as some of the best stories are.
From the beginning, right up until the bows, Abeysekera plays the lead role with incredible enthusiasm, an almost lyrical physicality as he negotiates the space around him. So enthralled and charmed are we by his playful, sassy and enquiring mind (his cheeky retorts to the impatient Japanese investigator, Mr Okamoto, are particularly enjoyable), that we are with him with every fist pump. His incredible journey and the way it is told by director Max Webster is the most thrilling triumph.
In her stage adaptation, Lolita Chakrabarti (writer of Hymn at the Almeida) taps into the theme of coexistence – the cohabitation of man and tiger, the adoption of several contrasting faiths simultaneously, and the collaboration of cast and creative. Granted, there are the inevitable teething problems (Andrew T. Mackay’s score is, at times, repetitive and overbearing on the dialogue, and initial introductions to the zoo animals feel a tad rushed), but when it comes to the exceptional teamwork and immersive nature behind theatre, Life of Pi is a fine example.
Life of Pi is now playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until 27 February 2022, with audio described and captioned performances taking place on 7 January and 14 January respectively.
Production Images: Johan Persson.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Life of Pi’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.