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  • Jack Starr

★★★★★ Life of Pi Review – A Masterpiece in Visual Production

This theatre adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi first premiered in Sheffield in 2019, at the Crucible. By the time it had toured London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, it had won dozens of awards – including multiple Tonys and Oliviers. Seeing the play return to Sheffield (this time staged at the Lyceum), it is easy to see why. Life of Pi is simply a visual masterpiece, with its elaborate stage design, entrancing use of lighting and colour, and of course, the puppetry – the standard of which has perhaps never been seen before.

Life of Pi follows Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy, growing up in Pondicherry in the 1970s as the son of a zookeeper. As he navigates his relationship with spirituality – simultaneously trying to practice Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – he is told that, due to civil unrest in India, his family (and their animals) are moving to Canada. However, on the journey, they are shipwrecked, and Pi survives 227 days stranded at sea… alone with a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The play closely follows the same story as the best-selling novel, though the dialogue has been reworked to take advantage of the theatre setting. Writer Lolita Chakrabarti has done a great job adapting a well-known story to the stage – though most of the audience will be familiar with the novel or the 2012 film version, this version does enough differently to stay fresh and exciting.

The tale simply just works – much of it is open to audience interpretation, which lends well to theatre. The play does not try to work around the viewer’s imagination, but instead, to enhance itself by playing off the imagination of the viewer.

Much of the stage is, unusually, dominated by puppeteers and stagehands, allowing the revolving and endlessly unfolding set to come to life – yet the play is so engrossing, they are never a distraction. In fact, by allowing the puppeteers to directly control each puppet by hand, they are afforded a greater level of expressiveness and realism not possible via strings or animatronics.

This leads us to Richard Parker, the star of the show. We met the tiger and his puppeteers for a preview during pre-production, and he absolutely blew us away. Don’t let the idea of a ‘tiger puppet’ make you think of a cuddly, family fare – this is a real Bengal tiger, with accurate proportions and realistic movements, bought to life by a cutting-edge team of puppeteers and stage animators. The team also bring to life an orangutan, a zebra and a hyena, along with smaller animals like turtles and fish – but it’s Richard Parker who is by far the most impressive. The tiger itself has a terrifying presence in the story, and its presentation on the stage is equally unsettling, as the quality and care of the puppet – as well as the gradual build-up to its reveal – make you feel as if there is a real animal on the stage, about to run loose.

Aside from the animals, the play uses an array of lighting, colour and motion; it entrances you immediately with its bright colours in its idealist, dreamlike depiction of Pi’s childhood at the zoo, before moving to the more desolate and despairing setting of the shipwreck. The contrast between the joys of family life among the animals in bright tropical India, to the harrowing tale of survival, makes the plot all the more hard-hitting.

The set itself is intricate and complex, folding out into different locations at a frantic pace as we are transported to India’s markets and zoos, to the cargo ship and resulting shipwreck, and beyond. For any viewers sceptical of theatre as a static, one-location medium: this production is clear proof otherwise.

Divesh Subaskaran plays Pi, in his professional debut, and it is easy to see how he landed the role – he captures the mannerisms, expression and the accent of the young Indian man lost in a world beyond his understanding, trying to find his faith before fighting for his survival. Though the human cast are often overshadowed by the spectacle of the puppetry, they still do a fine job of carrying the conflict.

Is there anything to nit-pick about Life of Pi? There is one psychedelic, metaphysical section of the story that is near impossible to replicate onstage, so it is instead recounted verbally, which lacks the same impact when there is so much else to marvel at visually.

Otherwise, it is safe to say that this production is a visual masterwork, and a brilliant piece of storytelling. If you know someone, or are someone, who is not convinced by the theatre, this is the play that will change your mind. Awe-inspiring and exhilarating, this is no cuddly adventure – it is a philosophical thriller that will leave you speechless.


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