LIFE OF PI

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _WOLVERHAMPTON GRAND.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _27th APR.

April 23, 2024

images © Johan Persson.

With a slew of loving admirers and outright imitators, running the gamut from Orwell’s Animal Farm through to Lewis’ adventures of Narnia, the stark truth is that there hasn’t quite been anything to challenge the crown of Marianne Elliot, Tom Morris and Toby Sedgwick’s stunning fusion of animal puppetry and theatrical storytelling in War Horse. The influence of the National Theatre colossus (itself returning for a new tour later in 2024) can be seen and felt in a whole host of productions since, but no show seems to have quite been able to recapture or bottle that ‘Joey’ magic.

Max Webster’s Life of Pi is perhaps the closest a show has come to date. On paper, it checks a lot of the same boxes. Based on a popular novel? Check. Orbiting a critically acclaimed Hollywood adaptation? Indeed. Organically featuring a prominent animal character that forges a bond with its traumatised, struggling protagonist put through an ordeal of survival? Full house.

To simply filter Pi through the funnel of Horse would, however, do it a disservice. Whereas Horse is a more literal rumination on war, loss and fortitude, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi novel, on which this theatrical outing is lifted, is – for better or worse – a decidedly more spiritual and metaphysical affair. An allegorical melting pot of ideas and pondering on faith, higher powers, the interconnectivity with the natural world and, perhaps above all, the power of storytelling.

“It makes for a more numinous, occasionally otherworldly experience…”

It makes for a more numinous, occasionally otherworldly experience, and it’s in realising this quality where Webster and company’s production really shines. Following the story of young Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel (Divesh Subaskaran), we following the probing, questioning son of a zookeeper as he embarks on a new life with his family, departing the turbulence of mid 1970’s India. As the family set out on their emigration to Canada, disaster strikes, and young ‘Pi’ is forced into a battle for survival on the high seas, with only a lifeboat and the small matter of a ferocious Bengal Tiger for company.

It looks fantastic. Even the more dour moments of the show – such as those set in present day where we find a traumatised, recovering Pi recounting his tale within an institution – ripple at their fringes with Andrzej Goulding’s captivating projection and transportive video work. Tim Hatley’s early sets for the sequences in India are versatile, changeable yet evocative of place – be it the verticality of a bustling zoo, busy and lived-in market back streets or an unwelcoming cargo ship. And once out upon the ocean, the team really go to town on creating some mesmerising visuals – with everything from bioluminescent schools of flittering fish, to a blanket of stars enveloping lonely Pi and his feline companion.

Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that, as per War Horse, the puppetry is in many ways the star attraction here, and Pi’s beasts definitely do not disappoint. The main player is ‘Richard Parker’, the fearsome Bengal Tiger whom Pi comes to form a begrudging co-existence with as the pair float for survival on the open sea. It’s little surprise that the role of ‘Richard’ nabbed the Olivier for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for all seven (!) of its original puppeteers, and Akash Heer, Kate Rowsell and Fred Davis did truly resplendent work in the performance reviewed. It certainly helps that Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s stylised yet utterly believable design work on not just Richard, but a slew of featured animal characters from cackling hyenas to maternal Orangutans, feels somehow both heightened yet utterly authentic at once.

Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s stylised yet utterly believable design work… feels somehow both heightened yet utterly authentic at once.”

Of the human cast, Pi himself is earnestly and powerfully portrayed by an impressive Divesh Subaskaran. Curious, questioning and earnest, boyishly brave and endearingly naive all at once, Subaskaran takes his ‘Pi’ (not to mention the audience) on quite the journey, particularly affecting during the later moments of trauma and realisation, and cements himself as a real talent to watch. Goldy Notay, Sonya Venugopal and Ralph Birtwell put in likeable supporting turns as Pi’s family, but perhaps somewhat disappointingly, the majority of humans outside of Pi himself are fairly thin, cookie cutter types with less meat on their bones than the driftwood puppets about them.

Pi also finds itself bookended with a fair amount of questioning and hypothesising, and occasionally seems to almost catch itself getting a little too self-important or pious. There’s some fleetingly interesting stuff in there about belief, conviction and chance, but the spectacle is showy and entrancing, and the central plight engaging enough, that it could easily do without the need for quite so much sermonising.

Life of Pi may not quite rise to the ranks of majesty, nuance or gut punch storytelling of War Horse, and occasionally dips into feeling a little too meditative for its own good, but remains nonetheless a worthy challenger to Joey’s equine throne. Magnificently performed, it is a moving, sumptuously realised tale of survival and fortitude, enriched with some of the most stunning stagecraft and puppetry you will likely see in a theatre this year.

A stunning, regularly captivating fight for survival that flickers with the numinous and otherwordly, not least of all in its truly splendid puppets. Set sail with Richard Parker, Pi and companions for a memorable, occasionally meandering spot of theatre magic.

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