Life of Pi had a first life as a Booker prize-winning novel by Yann Martel and a second as an Oscar-winning film by Ang Lee. Both were utterly captivating. Now comes playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage spectacular (first presented in Sheffield in 2019) about Piscine “Pi” Patel, the zookeeper’s son from Pondicherry who claims to have survived a shipwreck in a life-raft with a Bengal tiger in tow.
The magic here lies firmly in aesthetics, from the teeming menagerie of large-scale puppets, exquisitely designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, to visual effects that surge, dazzle and undulate like ocean waves (stage design by Tim Hatley with video design by Andrzej Goulding and lighting by Tim Lutkin).
The script and characterisation are flat-footed by comparison: “I’ve had a terrible trip,” says Pi from his hospital bed at the start (the framing device here is different from the book and film). It is meant to be wry but, like much of the dialogue, lands with a thud.
Martel’s original, unreliable narration left enough space for us to decide if Pi’s story was one of hope, faith and tiger-taming or of survivor’s guilt, trauma and delusion. His subtle explorations of truth and the necessary comforts of make-believe are shoe-horned in as soundbites about God, the beauty of the world and storytelling.
The visual effects seem to compete with, and ultimately drown out, the quieter, more philosophical elements of the drama, not leaving enough room for Pi’s existential rumination, which is key to his tale.
As Pi, Hiran Abeysekera looks every inch the puckish man-boy and is incredibly light on his feet. He plays him as a 17-year-old survivor with PTSD in hospital, and as a slightly maniacal castaway on the boat. He is good at conjuring alarm in whooping, adrenalised highs but seems tense and overwrought in the softer moments.
The characters on the whole are vividly drawn but ironed to a cartoonish flatness, and the tone between them is barking and shrill. Pi’s father (Nicholas Khan) has a touch of Basil Fawlty, his mother (Mina Anwar) and sister (Payal Mistry) lack distinction and ancillary characters feel like cardboard cut-outs. As a children’s show, the jokes hold but an older audience feels the lack of a finer, more subtle script to square up to the sophisticated visuals.
Still, under Max Webster’s direction, the stage is full of energy and surprise. “Once upon a time,” says Pi, as he takes us on the first of many flashbacks, which transform the stage in seconds. There is a flurry of butterflies, a starry sky, iridescent shoals of fish and immersive storms that wrack the extremities of the stage.
Zebras, giraffes, hyenas and turtles are manipulated sublimely, transporting us to the family zoo and then to the high seas. The first sight of Richard Parker, the tiger, is a breathtaking moment and emulates the CGI effects in Lee’s film. The life-raft rises out of the floor and the back screen cracks open from its middle, like a suitcase, as the family sets sail for Canada. These animals and effects are a wonder to behold and become the real stars of this show.