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Reviewed: Life of Pi at Curve

The multi-award winning play is currently in Leicester as part of its UK tour.

Divesh Subaskaran as Pi, facing down the tiger, Richard Parker. Photo by Johan Persson.
Divesh Subaskaran as Pi, facing down the tiger, Richard Parker. Photo by Johan Persson.

The New York Times once described Life of Pi as "unadaptable" for the stage. Despite having found success in Ang Lee's 2012 film adaptation, Yann Martel's novel seemed too ambitious for theatre.

According to the programme notes, this thought never occurred to playwright Lolita Chakrabarti until the first preview: "I leapt at this opportunity, I felt I knew how to do it. I write as an actor, instinctively. I can't always find the correct words, but I feel my way through the stories I write. So with Pi, I thought: I know what this is, I can feel it."

Her instincts were correct. Spoiler alert: This is a phenomenal production, directed by Max Webster.

I've never read the book, nor seen the Ang Lee film, so I went into this production completely without expectation. I knew very little about the plot, other than "boy gets stranded in a boat with a tiger". That's certainly part of it, but it's really just the first layer.

The play begins with Pi (full name: Piscine Molitor Patel) in a Mexican hospital, being visited by two officials, one from the Canadian embassy, the other from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, who are conducting an inquiry into the shipwreck that led to Pi's story.

It takes some coaxing, but Pi begins to tell his story. It's a tale of growing up in his family's zoo in India, being named after his Francophile uncle's favourite French swimming pool, his desire to better understand God (and therefore attending services of every religion), and his father's desire to move to Canada for a safer life for his family. India is in political turmoil at the time, and despite owning hyenas, zebras, orangutans, and a Royal Bengal tiger (named "Richard Parker" due to a mix-up on the requisition form), his father warns Pi, "man is the most dangerous animal in this zoo". A warning that takes on new meaning by the end of the play.

The cast of Life of Pi. Photo by Johan Persson.
The cast of Life of Pi. Photo by Johan Persson.

It's his father's wish to leave that sets the story in motion. The family – along with their zoo animals – board a freight ship bound for Canada. Not long into the journey, it encounters a storm that causes a shipwreck. Pi is thrown overboard by the sailors, marooning him, alone on a lifeboat in the centre of the ocean. Initially, he shares the boat with a wounded zebra. Other animals from the zoo, including a hyena, an orangutan, and the tiger find their way aboard the boat, but gradually kill each other and feast on the remains. Ultimately, the Tiger is the last animal on the boat with Pi, who does his best to tame it, and maintain an uneasy alliance as they gradually run out of food.

There are many impressive elements to this play, but one that stood out to me – and maybe wouldn't stand out to most – was the depiction of water. Water is often quite difficult to portray without flooding the stage, but the use of projection here was the best I've seen it done.

The ocean is projected directly onto the floor, leaving the impression that Pi's boat is indeed surrounded. Meanwhile, the storm and rain are projected onto the back of the set, but the addition of a haze machine means the projection also hits in the open space above the actors. It's really effective, and coupled with atmospheric sound and lighting, makes the storm far more visceral.

The headline of this production is the puppetry. All the animals – big and small – are puppeteered with magnificent artistry. You easily get lost in the notion that three people are moving Richard Parker, and instead accept the tiger as a very real danger. It has nuance. It has personality. And at one point, it has an undeniable character.

This level of skill also makes the play quite uncomfortable to watch at times, as the animals savagely kill each other as prey. Richard Parker's early dissection of the family's beloved goat sets the tone for this, establishing just how emotionless "survival of the fittest" actually is.

It takes three puppeteers to bring the tiger, Richard Parker, to life. Photo by Johan Persson.
It takes three puppeteers to bring the tiger, Richard Parker, to life. Photo by Johan Persson.

The end of the play finds an even darker reality for Pi, which I must admit to finding very difficult to watch. But that's what theatre should do. It should move you; provoke you; bring you new ideas and challenge your hard-wired philosophies.

It should also entertain though, and Life of Pi certainly does that. There are laughs, heart-warming interactions, and a sense of adventure despite the dire circumstances... or at least, that's one interpretation.

The cast were all superb, but I'll single out two. Divesh Subaskaran is endlessly charismatic and likeable as Pi. The fact that he's so easy to root for makes his story all the more devastating. Subaskaran is often the only actor on stage, surrounded by animals and their puppeteers, but he carries the show with a self-assured confidence – incredible for his professional debut.

Every good story needs a villain, and Peter Twose delivers a note-perfect, grimy, brutalistic, creep as the Cook and moustache (whisker?) twirling high-camp baddie as the head of Richard Parker. So easy to dislike, Twose's performance adds so much vital tragedy to this production.

Beautiful, funny, heart-breaking, gruesome and traumatic, Life of Pi is a phenomenal piece of theatre.


Life of Pi is at Curve until Sunday, March 17, before continuing on its UK tour until July 2024.


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