Life of Pi – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
By Gail Schuster, January 2024
Who doesn’t want to sit back and be entertained by a story, on a dark, drizzly, January day? Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel, Life of Pi, certainly manages to enthral the audience with this philosophical account of tragic loss and survival against the odds.
The curtains open to an austere, hospital room in Mexico. Pi, after having been coaxed out from under the bed, starts to tell his story to two visiting officials who want to know about the shipwreck in which he lost his family. As his seemingly tall tale about being on a lifeboat with four animals unfolds, the stage transforms into Pondicherry Zoo, owned by his parents. It is bright, colourful, and full of life, but even here long shadows are cast by the political unrest, which eventually causes the family to look at leaving India. This is the start of some wonderful stagecraft. Throughout the production, the actors move items to create cages, the lifeboat and the detritus from the shipwreck which is carried weaving and winding across the set as though it is bobbing on the ocean.
Lighting, by Tim Lutkin and Tim Deiling, is used very effectively; warm and cheery for the time with his family in India, harsh and stark in the hospital room and with many nuances during Pi’s time on the sea. It is used to convey the passage of time with beautiful sunsets and starry nights, but also darkening to convey the perilousness of his situation after days at sea with no water. There is also a magical effect where water is running backwards and forwards across the deck of the ill-fated ship taking the family to Canada during the storm which causes the vessel to sink.
This production is known for its wonderful use of puppetry, and deservedly so. The puppets have an authenticity of real animals, as they are not anthropomorphised or made cuddly in any way. An orangutan, a hyena or a zebra would be a danger on a lifeboat and true to its nature the hyena kills the other two before meeting its own demise at the jaws of Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger, with whom Pi learns to share the boat. The puppets appear to be made of driftwood in a clever nod to the shipwreck and have actors controlling them on the inside as well as on the outside, but these disappear as the animals move naturally to play their part in the unfolding drama. Richard Parker, the main puppet, stalks and moves with feline grace.
Chakrabarti, switches the narrative backwards and forwards in time, from the present in the sterile hospital room with Pi recounting his adventure, to the previous fight for survival on the hostile sea so that the audience is constantly reminded that they are listening to a story being told.
I did feel that some of the family ties and parts could have been strengthened so that the audience felt the loss of the characters more keenly, but overall, it was a fabulous piece of theatre and well worth watching. A tale that catches the desire of the human spirit to survive even in what would seem to be impossible circumstances.
‘Life of Pi’ is at Leeds Grand Theatre until January 13th
images: Ellie Kurttz