John Kitching, Writer

A Wonderful Slice Of Pi

I had always promised myself that I would read the book, but never quite got around to it; the film somehow inexplicably passed me by, so my first taste of ‘Pi’ was to be the live theatre, and I was enthralled. The experience was moving as we watched a young man fight for survival while trying to come to terms with what faith meant to him. It is a philosophical story, but one tinged with courage, brutality, and the all-encompassing power of nature.

Pi (Divish Subaskaran) in his Indian zoo. Photo Johan Persson
Pi (Divish Subaskaran) in his Indian zoo. Photo Johan Persson
Life of Pi began in 2001 as an award-winning novel written by Yann Martel before being adapted for the big screen in 2012 by Ang Lee, winning four Oscars. In 2019, Lolita Chakrabarti created the stage version, which transferred to the West End in 2021, where it scooped up five Olivier Awards. Now touring the UK until June 2024, it manages to recreate the scenes from the original book through its use of some brilliant effects such as lighting and projection, as well as astonishing puppetry and acting of the very highest calibre.

Telling the story of Pi, a 17-year-old who has survived 227 days at sea in a small boat after the sinking of the cargo ship he was sailing on from India to Canada with his family and some of the animals from the family zoo. The story is related under interrogation from Pi’s hospital bed, which is set in the uniform grey room. As his story is retold, we move between the family zoo in India prior to their voyage and the lifeboat he ends up in after the sinking.

Pi (Divish Subaskaran) fighting the elements. Photo Johan Persson
Pi (Divish Subaskaran) fighting the elements. Photo Johan Persson
Tim Hatley’s set is reminiscent of an advent calendar, with different windows opening and closing to reveal surprises and transport us to three very different scenes: the clinically drab hospital, all the colour of Indian life, and the dramatic journey Pi had on the lifeboat. Wonderfully complemented by Tim Lutkin and Tim Deiling’s evocative lighting effects and clever projections by Andrej Goulding. Movement between scenes was accomplished with consummate ease, ensuring the audience was transported seamlessly through Pi’s story.

The puppetry is integral to the performance, and here it is taken to new levels with puppeteers bringing a supporting cast of small creatures such as butterflies, birds, meerkats, turtles, and fish to life while contorting themselves to portray the'supporting' cast of goat, zebra, orangutang, hyena and the'main' character, Richard Parker, the fearsome Bengal Tiger. There were numerous operators who worked hard together to make the animals appear as life like as possible, but the design and movement coordination by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell is absolutely top-class.

Pi (Divish Subaskaran) with Richard Parker the Bengal Tiger. Photo Johan Persson
Pi (Divish Subaskaran) with Richard Parker the Bengal Tiger. Photo Johan Persson
Divesh Subaskaran, as Pi, manages to portray a level of youthful high spirits and maintains genuine concern about the animals stranded with him. Timid, when first confronted by his interrogators seeking answers to the sinking and his subsequent survival, becomes bolder, holding our attention as he weaves the story of his incredible journey. A wonderful stage debut promises more in the coming years. Ably supported by a quality company that set the scenes for Pi wonderfully. Special mention must be given to Lilian Tsang as Mrs Okamoto the main investigator; Sharita Oomer as Mrs Chen the caring counsellor and Keshini Misha as his sister Rani.

A must-see production surely destined to be a modern classic full of cultural references but totally accessible to all. It is a tale of courage, endurance, and the capabilities of the human spirit. More of an experience than a production where we easily suspend our disbelief. In the end, we are challenged, along with Mrs Okamoto and Mrs Chen, to decide which of the two accounts we want to believe in, the one about animals or the one about humans. I know which I prefer.

Life of Pi
Bradford Alhambra until 11 November 2023

UK Touring dates in the North 2023-2024:
Lowry Theatre, Salford 5 December - 7 January
Grand Theatre, Leeds 9 - 13 January
Theatre Royal, Newcastle 23 - 27 January
New Theatre, Hull 25 - 30 March
Empire Theatre, Liverpool 30 April - 4 May