Life of Pi - for cat lovers everywhere!
“. . . and a Bengal tiger who ate the hyena but not you? “
It was the book that couldn’t be filmed, and after it was filmed, it was the film that couldn’t be staged and now it is showing at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End with exemplary staging.
I am publishing this review with more pictures than I have ever used because the impact of Life of Pi is about the feelings and the visuals of the magnificent animals created by Finn Caldwell and his team of puppeteers. I just couldn’t bear to call the War Horse horses, puppets, because they are altogether more impressive and equine than anything I’ve ever seen on stage and similarly I was blown away here by Richard Parker the tiger, the zebras and terrified by the hyena.
The play opens in a hospital ward in Mexico with a representative from the Canadian government Lulu Chen (Kirsten Foster) and a Japanese insurance loss adjuster Mr Okamoto (David KS Tse) who is investigating the cause of the sinking of the SS Tsimtsum in the Pacific Ocean. Under the bed is hiding Piscine Patel, known as Pi, the only survivor. Pi has lost his family and is understandably traumatised.
The family complete with their zoo were migrating to Canada and the animals were also on board the ship. The story returns two years earlier to the zoo in Pondicherry India where butterflies flutter, giraffes stretch up high and Pi plays with a pet goat. The monkeys are led by Orange Juice a mother orang utan; there are miniature mongooses and a nasty hyena.
We meet Pi’s family and his father (Nicholas Khan) tries to teach him a lesson about wild animals by feeding the pet goat to the tiger in front of his son. If you were thinking about taking small children to Life of Pi, stop here, because this is the first of several bloody scenes which might traumatise them, as they did me.
Pi we learn has been involved in three religions, brought up as a Hindu, he attended a mosque and he has been to a local church for the Catholic mass. This is interesting because of each religion’s approach to death and dying. Pi is claimed by all three religions.
In a vibrant scene of bustle and market place, the Patel family supervise the packing of the ship. You can almost smell the saffron and the flowers on the garlands in this colourful scene. Once at sea the world map is projected on the stage floor and a miniature steamship is carried over the seas. There is a great storm, the video waves get rougher, there is heavy rain and lightning and thunder and the hyena and the orang utan escapes as does the zebra, Black and White is his name. Meanwhile in the hospital, Pi is reliving the storm and his finding himself on a life raft.
The tiger is swimming in the sea and Pi is trying to fight him off with an oar. Black and White is hurt and the hyena rips out the meat from the zebra’s leg while he is still alive. Orange Juice too come to a sticky end at the jaws of the hyena. I found it quite distressing to see these animals being eaten.
Pi is cross examined by Mr Okamoto as to how the tiger eats the hyena but not Pi himself. Pi explains that bananas float and that he found cans of water and tins of food in the survival rations. Pi learns to catch fish and slowly gains the tiger’s trust. The sea parts and allows Pi to dive into it to catch fish.
The young star Hiran Abeysekera has a very good acting range and is almost never off stage in the two hours. He has a kind of spirituality as he speaks honestly about Pi’s experiences. Pi is only 17 years old. The Life of Pi has a strong ensemble, some of whom were with the show when it was first performed in Sheffield in 2019.
The relationship between man and Bengal tiger takes a different turn and the final scene will attempt an explanation. Lolita Chakrabarti has adapted the novel for the stage. The book has sold 15 million copies worldwide, the movie was a big success but nothing beats seeing the Life of Pi live on a stage.
Life of Pi
Novelist Yann Martel
Playwright: Lolita Chakrabarti
Directed by Max Webster
David KS Tse
Director: Max Webster
Designer: Tim Hatley
Puppet and Movement Director: Finn Caldwell
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
Puppet Designers: Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell
Video Designer: Andrzej Goulding
Sound Designer: Carolyn Downing
Composer: Andrew T Mackay
Dramaturg: Jack Bradley
Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes
with an interval
Booking to 15th January 2023
Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 0DA
Telehone: 0844 482 5151
Tube: Leicester Square
Telephone: 0344 871 7628
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at Wyndham’s Theatre
on 1st December 2021