On Stage at Wyndham’s Theatre – Life of Pi by Yann Martel
It’s always a challenge to see a book you have loved taken on stage or translated to film. And, Life of Pi is a book I read from cover to cover without a break with a story that gripped me.
After a cargo ship sinks in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, there are five survivors stranded on a single lifeboat – a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, a sixteen-year-old boy and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. Time is against them, nature is harsh, who will survive? In Life of Pi, the eponymous hero is an Indian boy whose faith is his life. At the start of the story, he’s already immersed in Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. He’s even dabbling in Judaism. With childish naivety, he doesn’t understand why he needs to choose just one.
Pi’s journey is an allegory for the spiritual journey of finding faith, and his struggle at sea with Richard Parker and encounter with an island that by day is welcoming but at night is full of carnivorous plants, supposedly represents the doubt that one must overcome.
Based on one of the best-loved works of fiction – winner of the Man Booker Prize, selling over fifteen million copies worldwide – Life of Pi is a breath-taking theatrical adaptation of an epic journey of endurance and hope. First staged in Sheffield in the summer of 2019, Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s book had rave reviews at the time and is now opening at Wyndham’s Theatre just in time for Christmas outings.
This production shines thanks at least in part to a stunning performance throughout the show by Hiran Abeysekera who seamlessly evolves from an ingenious child to a perceptive and enlightened adult and who carries the audience with his emotions during the extended shipwreck scenes. His immediate family, Mina Anwar as Ma, Nicholas Khan as Father and Payal Mistry as Rani are entirely credible while Raj Ghatak as Mamaji (trusted Uncle) and Pandit-Ji and Syreeta Kumar as Mrs Biology Kumar and Zaida Khan have intertwined cameo roles which feed into the story. Mamaji for example teaches Pi to swim while Pandit-Ji is the Hindu priest who provides his first encounter with faith. Tom Espiner doubles up as Father Martin and the rather prescriptive Commander Grant-Jones, while Habib Nasib Nadar is the terrifying Cook and Voice of Tiger. And, trying to get to the bottom of the story, Kirsten Foster is a calm and supportive Lulu Chen while David K.S. Tse plays the anxious Mr Okamoto.
If the acting is exemplary, the puppetry is phenomenal. We’ve been amazed by Nick Barnes’ work before, both in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and on the set of English National Opera’s Madame Butterfly. Here, imagination is let loose. The plot involves a zebra, a laughing hyena, an orangutan, a goat and of course, Nicholas Parker, the Royal Bengal Tiger. The puppets are directed by Finn Caldwell who began his career in the original company of the National Theatre’s international phenomenon War Horse and played by a whole host of actors who you see on stage moving the puppets themselves as Tiger Head (Tom Larkin), Tiger Heart (Romina Hytten and Scarlett Wilderink) and Tiger Hind (Tom Stacy) for instance. It’s completely immersive thanks to the incredible breadth of movement achieved by the puppets. I defy you not to be sucked in from the moment you meet Richard Parker…
This production, directed by Max Webster, is one not to miss. We were impressed by every aspect, from the simple yet effective set design (Ross Ewards and mesmerising lighting (Tim Lutkin) to the brilliant interpretation of Yann Martel’s work by Lolita Chakrabarti. It’s engaging, provocative and thought-provoking – and yet still great entertainment. Isn’t that the hallmark of a great piece of theatre?
I would go again without hesitation – and the book is now open by my bed.
For further information, please see www.lifeofpionstage.com
Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DA
Booking till 27th February 2022
Box Office: 0844 482 5151
Ticket prices start from £15.00
Wednesday – Saturday: 7:30pm
Thursday & Saturday matinees: 2:30pm
Sunday matinees: 3:00pm
See website for Christmas to New Year performance schedule