The Life Of Pi
Milton Keynes Theatre
20th September 2023
When it comes to “things that should be impossible to recreate on stage”, a boy stranded at sea in a storm on a boat with an assortment of zoo animals” must be fairly near the top of the list. But as we theatregoers know, our industry creatives are never afraid of a challenge, which was certainly the case with ‘Life Of Pi’. Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s award-winning 2001 novel was first brought to the stage in 2019, wowing Sheffield audiences before going on to impress the West End and Broadway. The tale of survival and storytelling has now embarked on its first UK tour. Having initially returned to its Crucible origins, the production tours the country until June 2024, and visits Milton Keynes Theatre this week.
Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel (played by Divesh Subaskaran in his professional debut) lives with his family in a zoo in India. When social unrest makes life too difficult to remain in India, the family pack up their lives (and animals) and set sail for new adventures. Battered by unexpected storms, the ship begins to sink, and Pi manages to reach a lifeboat. Several animals also desperately climb aboard for safety, among them a Royal Bengal tiger (humorously-named Richard Parker). The battle for survival intensifies as hunger and thirst grow, and Pi embarks on the ultimate test of resilience and endurance, but in retelling his story to government officials, two versions emerge – which is the truth?
Anyone who’s read the source novel or seen the 2012 film will know the epic scale of this story, and to even attempt to adapt it for the stage seems madness, but the production is a triumph of spectacle and thrills that draw the audience in completely. Director Max Webster hasn’t cut any corners or tried to take the easy route here, every key scene and event is captured, and with such confidence and assurance that the result is exhilarating. A polished mix of stunning production design and Martel’s intriguing storytelling, ‘Life Of Pi’ is a searing visual feast that gives us a engaging central character and implores us to live his journey of survival with him, while also forcing us to ask some bigger questions as the plot turns more ambiguous later on. The production retains most of staging that it displayed in London, with some necessary amendments to make it suitable for touring, and although some of the automation and slickness is missed, the result is still hugely impressive. Tim Hatley’s clever inventive set delivers each location effectively (enhanced further by some fantastic video design by Andrzej Goulding and lighting design by Tim Lutkin), with the scenes at sea being particular highlights, while the transitions in and out of the hospital location are smooth and well thought-out. Andrew T Mackey’s score is hauntingly powerful and really does add weight to the drama, although the sound could do with a bit of fine-tuning as much of Pi’s dialogue is indecipherable during the play’s louder sections.
Special mention must go to Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, whose puppet work here is nothing short of incredible. Puppets used to be a bit of a joke in theatre (although the landscape changed after the brilliant work in ‘War Horse’), and the creations here are beautifully designed and wonderfully performed. They capture the movement of each creature perfectly, down to the smallest detail, and invest them with real character and life. Obviously the tiger is a thrilling highlight, from his first menacing appearance to the final swish of his tail, and the design and delivery of this character is nothing short of staggering.
Divesh Subaskaran is fantastic is Pi, and does a great job in leading the show (even more impressive given that it’s his professional stage debit). It’s a challenging role, never off-stage and incredibly physical, and Subaskaran does brilliantly. The rest of the principal cast also do well, particularly Keshini Misha as sister Rani and Goldy Notay as mother Amma. The puppeteers also deserve performance credit for the way they bring the animals to life with emotion and nuance.
‘Life Of Pi’ really is a testament to the scale and scope of what live theatre can deliver, and proof that all productions are only limited by the imaginations of their creative teams, which here are endless. Inventive, thrilling and full of drama and wonder, ‘Life Of Pi’ is true “event theatre”, and a must-see,
‘The Life Of Pi’ runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 23rd September 2023, before continuing on its UK tour for the rest of the year and into 2024.
Performance runtime 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.