It was hard to envisage how any theatremaker could possibly do justice to Yann Martel’s Booker-winning multimillion-selling novel about a boy named Piscine stranded on a life-raft with just an adult Bengal tiger for company. Where would you even start?
But writer Lolita Chakrabarti and director Max Webster have pulled it off. They’ve brought Martel’s vision stunningly to life.
Chakrabarti’s adaptation is incredibly clever. As well as telling the story in flashback – structuring the story around the tale that Pi tells to the insurance investigators – she has wisely streamlined the source material and made a few small but key changes. Pi now has a “very annoying maths genius” sister instead of a brother, and some of the stuff about Pi’s schooldays has been dispensed with so that the Patel family are off on their ill-fated voyage to Canada within the first 15 minutes.
This minimal set-up is beautifully done. Within just a few minutes you feel as if you know the Patel family. This is also when we get the first glimpse of Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes’ puppets, the Crucible stage filling up with giraffes, zebras and orang-utans.
Hiran Abeysekera is excellent as Pi. He’s instantly likeable, with strong comic timing, which he displays to good effect in the play’s lighter moments. He plays the darker scenes with great intensity: it would be easy for an actor to be overshadowed by the spectacle, yet Abeysekera maintains a strong human connection. Although they don’t have as much stage time, Mina Anwar and Kammy Darweish also make a lasting impression as Pi’s parents.
Director Webster has created something truly exceptional here. The production is so full of genuinely magical moments that awe becomes the audience’s default response. A lifeboat rises up, with Andrzej Goulding’s video projections of waves lapping across the stage, and, most jaw-droppingly of all, the sight of Pi jumping into the ‘ocean’, disappearing from view, and resurfacing on the other side of the boat.
Caldwell and Barnes’ puppets are works of art. The tiger Richard Parker, as brought to life by Kate Colebrook, Fred Davis and Owain Gwynn, is a majestic creation: although the actors are in view, you soon forget they’re on stage. Each little touch, each flick of the tail or tilt of the head, makes it feel more alive.
It’s not hard to imagine Life of Pi having a lifespan beyond its short, three-week run at the Crucible. It’s a captivating and thrillingly realised show, suffused with stage magic – a testament to the power of imagination.