Thursday 14 March 2024

Life of Pi

Curve, Leicester

13th March, 2024

What do you believe?

Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s ‘unadaptable’ novel Life of Pi was first seen at Sheffield Theatres in 2019. Telling the story of Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel who survives a storm which capsizes the ship that his family and their zoo were on, Pi’s resilience, his determination to survive the most adverse conditions, and his extraordinary outlook on life has made Martel’s novel a classic. Just as vivid is Max Webster’s production which, after triumphant runs in the West End and on Broadway, is now on tour. The staging has been very slightly simplified since we saw it at the Wyndham’s Theatre to make the show easier to tour, but Life of Pi remains a remarkable achievement in epic storytelling.

The story is framed by scenes in a hospital room in Mexico. Pi’s lifeboat has washed up on the shore and he’s now struggling to piece together the tragedy at the request of a shipping company official tasked with filing a report. But his post-traumatic stress doesn’t take away his gentle humour and thoughtful demeanour. Taking a sherbet lemon from his hiding spot under the bed, his hand pops out the other side to offer it to one of his visitors. When he does resurface, Pi (Divesh Subaskaran in an excellent professional debut) is genial, innocent-minded and funny. Soon enough, the white washed walls of the hospital open up to the vibrancy of his home in India. We meet a parade of animals from giraffes, goats, meerkats and hyenas. We’re also introduced to Pi’s philosophical outlook on religion. Frequenting the mosque, church and temple, he rejects his family’s plea to choose just one religion to follow, likening it to being asked to choose the better story. When his family’s zoo falls victim to the country’s political instability, rioting on the streets forces the family to move to Canada.

What follows is a genius, uber-theatrical piece of storytelling: from Webster's staging of the sinking ship to the following months Pi spends on a lifeboat in middle of the Pacific Ocean with a tiger named Richard Parker. But for all of its theatricality, Chakrabarti’s adaptation ensures the heart of Martel’s novel is beating strong. It’s not only a great story that makes Life of Pi such a popular novel, it’s also because Pi is a great protagonist and that really shines here. The show’s utter brilliance comes from how it highlights that theatre is a truly collaborative artform: from Tim Hatley’s set design to Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell’s driftwood-style puppets to Andrzej Goulding’s video design to the multiple actors who play the tiger (an Olivier Award winning part), all superbly helmed by Webster. The various design elements, movement and puppetry come together to create a show which visually dazzles and serves the story’s emotional and intellectual core.

Also clever is how, just like theatre, imagination and reality sit side by side, the sterile walls of the hospital existing in the same moment as the deep blue of the ocean. Quite quickly you get enraptured in the storytelling: the terror of a screaming orangutan flailing its arms about; the humour of a disoriented Pi seeing an anthropomorphic Richard Parker enthusing about his favourite foods; and the bobbing up and down of rain catchers on the water. You find yourself literally moving in your seat with the sinking of the ship and the motion of the lifeboat.

At the end of the play, when we’re prompted to question the likeliness of Pi’s story, and whether it was just a story, and we reflect on the power of storytelling ourselves. Life of Pi is a classic of the novel adaptation genre, and a reminder of our human need for stories to survive.

Life of Pi plays at Curve, Leicester until 16th March as part of a UK & Ireland tour. For further information please visit 

Life of Pi. Credit: Johan Persson

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