Life of Pi
Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until Jan 27
If ever there was a book that seemed to be, on the face of it, unfilmable and unstageable, it’s Yann Martel’s philosophical novel Life of Pi. Ang Lee’s big-screen version and now Max Webster’s stage production have happily laid those notions to rest.
The production that’s just opened in the capital is as breathtaking a technical achievement as the film.
Tim Hatley, the set designer, together with Finn Caldwell, the puppet and movement director, and Andrzej Goulding, the video designer, work nothing less than miracles. Their evocation of a steamer sinking in a storm at sea with a cargo of wild animals is horrifyingly believable.
The animals – especially the 450lb tiger that Pi ends up sharing a lifeboat with – are invested with powerful personalities thanks to their expert puppet masters.
What gives the show its heart is, however, Hiran Abeysekera’s mesmerising performance as Pi, the 16-year-old Indian lad with such an unerring ability to cut through the nonsense and seemingly intractable problems he sees around him.
Martel’s Man Booker prizewinning novel has its critics, but I’ve always loved it because it is, in essence, a plea for unity and cooperation between all people, regardless of difference.
The show, sensitively adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti, discards some deft touches in the book. There is, for instance, no sight of the tiger failing to give Pi one last look as he heads off into the jungle, which struck me as a pity. Overall, however, she captures the spirit of the book very effectively.
Abeysekera has such a boyish face and manner, by the way, that I was startled to catch a fleeting glimpse of his hairy chest: suddenly it dawned on me I was watching not a kid, but an actor in his thirties. Such is the magic of theatre.
His broad smile and look of relief at the curtain call were authentic – his big West End star turn had to be put on hold for six months because of the pandemic and there were moments when he must have thought he’d be a pensioner by the time it finally happened.