Review – Life of Pi (Sheffield Lyceum)
Since hearing about the theatrical version of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi, which I read a few years ago, I’ve been desperate to see how this fascinating story could possibly be depicted on stage. Accolades seem to follow this story in every format (the 2012 film version won four Oscars), and Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation is no exception; given its five Olivier awards – not to mention the promise of War Horse-esque puppetry of a life-size Bengal tiger – I’ve got pretty high expectations (and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be disappointed).
Based on the best-selling novel, Life of Piis the story of Piscine (Pi) Patel, a young boy from Ponticherry, India, who, after being shipwrecked in a storm, finds himself on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra and a Bengal tiger for company. Following its debut at the Crucible in 2019, the play returns to Sheffield as it begins its first UK tour with this production, directed by Max Webster.
Divesh Subaskaran triumphs in his professional debut as Pi, with a convincing portrayal of the philosophical teenager; he handles this physically and emotionally demanding role with poise and a real sense of humour to boot, with his perfect comic timing adding light relief to an otherwise quite dark and gruelling tale. Subaskaran never leaves the stage, and has the audience captivated throughout with his skilful storytelling and versatile acting talents. A truly stand-out performance.
Goldy Notay gives a strong and sensitive performance as Amma, capturing the maternal care the character devotes to both her family and the animals alike. Ralph Birtwell is equally endearing as Father, with a clever contrast between jokes and gravitas in ensuring his children appreciate the dangers of the world. And Pi’s sister, Rani, is played brilliantly by Keshini Misha – she is likeable and funny, and she and Subaskaran have a lovely rapport onstage, making their relationship as siblings completely believable.
Other notable performances include Bhawna Bhawsar, who doubles up as the similarly fiesty and protective Mrs Biology-Kumar and Lulu Chen, providing a contrast to the uptight and unsympathetic Mrs Okamoto, played confidently by Lilian Tsang (who also plays the ship’s captain). Chand Martinez has the most fun with his three characters, Mamaji, Pundit-Ji and Admiral Balbir Singh, providing life-saving advice with a sprinkling of humour for a further helping of light relief.
The puppetry, as expected, is magical. From butterflies and fish to the huge zoo animals, the attention to detail in the design of the puppets by Nick Barnes, and the skill of the actors puppeteering really brings the animals to life – indeed, it’s easy to forget you’re not watching a real tiger on stage. Particularly impressive for me was the difference in movement captured when the animals are on land versus swimming in the ocean – exceptionally clever movement direction by Finn Caldwell. Everyone on stage is part of the puppetry, making this a physically challenging show for the entire cast, and is a testament to their versatility as performers – they even form part of the set in places, bringing the starlit sky into immersive 3D. There is a constant sense of movement, mimicking the undulation of the ocean, which makes the few moments of stillness more poignant.
Tim Hatley’s set design is masterful, taking us from a hospital in Mexico to the bustling markets of India, then from a cargo ship to a raft in the middle of the ocean. This, coupled with superbly clever video (Anfrzej Goulding) and lighting design (Tim Lutkin and Tim Deiling), creates a stark contrast between the sterility of the hospital room and the vibrancy of nature and society, fully immersing the audience in every setting.
The story is thought-provoking, and the stagecraft is astonishing; a visually stunning masterpiece of theatre and one absolutely not to be missed.
Life of Pi runs at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre until Saturday 16th Sept.