In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but couldn’t because of the coronavirus lockdown, Fergus Morgan talks to Simon Friend, producer of Life of Pi, which was due to transfer from Sheffield to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End. He also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Life of Pi, directed by Max Webster and produced by Simon Friend Productions, was scheduled to open at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End this week, after a successful run at Sheffield’s Crucible last year, where it garnered glowing reviews and audience acclaim galore. That production was three and a half years in the making, says Friend.
“I optioned the rights to the book, and approached Lolita to write it and she accepted,” he says. “Then I approached Max to direct it and he accepted. And then we went on a long journey of workshops and readings and puppetry workshops and video designs. It all came together last summer in Sheffield in a perfect storm.”
Life of Pi, as fans of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning 2001 novel or its Oscar-winning 2012 film adaptation will know, is about a young Tamil boy, who finds himself adrift in the Indian Ocean with nothing but a Bengal Tiger for company. In the stage adaptation, the tiger was brought to life as a puppet designed by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes.
“The response was incredible,” says Friend. “We had a lot of five-star reviews, but more important were the standing ovations. People were leaping to their feet the second the lights came up at the end, which was really humbling. It marked it out as a special show, and we were grateful to be offered a West End theatre by Cameron Mackintosh.”
Who was involved?
“Hiran Abeysekera was going to star. He’s a really tremendous actor, as are the entire cast. He is a very special performer with enormous acting skill, but also physical dexterity, charisma and charm – a rare combination.
“The tiger was potentially the real star of the show, just like the puppet horses in War Horse. Finn and Nick created a really lifelike and rather extraordinary puppet. Together with a collection of specially trained actors, they created an enormous zoo.”
How far did they get?
“We confirmed the theatre and put tickets on sale last autumn. Our marketing campaign had begun in earnest and it was selling very well. Then in mid-March, people stopped buying tickets, as they did for every West End show.
“At the beginning of the lockdown, it looked like shows opening in April were in the danger zone, but that shows opening at the end of June would be fine. As time went on, that became less and less likely, and at a certain point we decided we would have to shift everything.”
‘The tiger was potentially the real star of the show, just like the puppet horses in War Horse’
Will the show be rescheduled?
“Yes. We don’t know how quickly theatres will get back on their feet. Some people still want to do shows this side of Christmas. I suspect that won’t be us but I’d like to make it happen as quickly as is responsible. Without question, it will be in the West End at some point.”
What is Friend doing during the shutdown?
“We’ve just announced the stage adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, which opens in April. Our successful production of Dial M for Murder had to close on week 10 of a 27-week tour, but, all being well, it will resume in January. We also produced a film of Florian Zeller’s play The Father last year. It’s due to be released in the UK in January.
“I’ve spent the lockdown at home in north London. I have found it challenging not having a definite point when we know for certain we can reopen. I rescheduled the Dial M for Murder tour to the autumn, which took an enormous amount of time but we had to shift it back again to the spring.
“I’ve been focusing on developing future work, commissioning various plays. We hope theatres will reopen, otherwise that will have been a complete waste of time as well.”
Further details: sfentertainment.co.uk
Something that did open this week 14 years ago was the inaugural edition of Suffolk’s Latitude Festival, which ran from July 16 to 19, 2006.
Snow Patrol, Mogwai and Antony and the Johnsons headlined the main stage, while lower down the music bill were such little-known names as the Zutons and Paolo Nutini. From the first, though, Latitude was as much about the arts as the anthems.
That initial festival included visits from London’s Royal Court with Angry Now, a collection of five-minute monologues from emerging writers including Tim Price and James Graham. It was joined by a host of other companies, some of which have since faded, but others – Nabokov, Dante Or Die – are still going strong on the fringe theatre circuit.
Poetry featured highly as well: John Cooper Clarke, Patti Smith, Murray Lachlan Young and Luke Wright all made appearances in the sheep-dotted splendour of Henham Park.
Latitude has evolved since 2006 – it has become bigger and mostly better. In recent years, it has developed into a handy staging post on the journey to Edinburgh for emerging artists, and into a vital Petri dish for gig-theatremakers such as Middle Child and Not Too Tame.
The festival was scheduled to celebrate its 15th edition this weekend: instead, its fields will lie fallow until next summer.