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  • Jack Starr

Life of Pi Theatre Preview – Jaw-Dropping Puppetry Brings Show to Life

Picture this – you’re standing in Tudor Square, and suddenly, out of the doors of the Lyceum Theatre, a live tiger emerges, snarling and growling, staring down the stunned crowd outside.

Of course, it isn’t a real tiger – it’s a trio of puppeteers operating one of the most impressive pieces of stage animation ever seen. Hand-made by Nick Barnes Puppetry in Hove, Richard Parker is made up of 183 nuts-and-bolts, and weighs 15 kilograms. This tiger is no Disney character – he’s painstakingly built to real animal measurements, and moves, acts, and even sounds like the real thing. His movements are so uncanny, you hardly even notice the puppeteers controlling him.

Life of Pi, the stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, was originally staged in Sheffield, premiering at the Crucible in June 2019. Since then, it has played at London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, winning every major play award including five Oliviers (with Best New Play) and three Tonys. The show will return home to Sheffield Theatres at the end of August, this time at the Lyceum for two weeks before embarking on a year-long UK tour.

The story follows Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, a young Indian boy who survives a shipwreck and spends 227 days at sea, stranded alone on a lifeboat with ‘Richard Parker’ – a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Originally a novel, the story has been adapted many times. In 2012, it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film by Ang Lee. The Sheffield Theatres production is the third theatre adaptation, but it is by far the most acclaimed yet.

Hiran Abeysekera (Pi) and Richard Parker the Tiger in Life of Pi. Photo by Johan Persson.

The clear main attraction for Life of Pi is the puppetry – or as the artists describe it, ‘stage animation’. The amount of work and talent that has gone into making every movement of the tiger realistic, every motion and every growl, is simply unbelievable. With one puppeteer controlling the head, one crawling as the torso, and one behind controlling the tail and back legs, it is a remarkable display of teamwork and trust – the back puppeteer even admitted to being totally blind on-stage, and going off carefully rehearsed cues.

The puppeteers even provide the ‘voice’ of the tiger – each of them growl together, resulting in a very authentic tiger sound. Each of them, in coordination, provide snarls in different tones, so that when heard in harmony, they produce a rich, terrifying animal noise. Combined with the animal’s movements – based on careful study of real tigers – it gives one of the most accurate reproductions of a live animal ever seen on-stage.

Speaking with the public, the creators remarked on the history of puppetry on the stage – how China, Italy and Eastern Europe have long-standing traditions of puppets, but in Britain, the term is more associated with Punch and Judy. The producers hope that Life of Pi will help to ‘expand the horizons’ of puppet-craft in the UK, by expanding the limitations of imagination.

Life of Pi returns to Sheffield Theatres from the 29th of August to the 16th of September, at the Lyceum Theatre. It will tour the UK throughout 2023 and 2024, before going on to tour the USA.

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Richard Parker in Life of Pi. Photography by Johan Persson.


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