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"One of the best theatrical experiences I have had": Life of Pi

What happens when your favourite book is turned into theatre? In this case, "an absolute visual treat".

A man wearing white is spotlit on a stage near a large model of a tiger.

Life of Pi

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

How can you believe something that can’t be proved? How can you place faith in the unimaginable when faith is all you have? And how can you believe the unbelievable when all you have is the word of the storyteller?

Recounting his tale of the most fantastic journey, Piscine Patel, or Pi as he prefers to be called, is a young man who lives in with his family in the zoo that they own and run in Pondicherry.

As political turmoil in India increases, Pi and his family make arrangements to move the zoo animals and the family to Canada, but the cargo ship that they are travelling on gets caught up in a storm and sinks, leaving Pi alone in a small lifeboat with only a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Royal Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker for company.

When Sheffield Theatres first announced that they were adapting Life of Pi for the stage a few years ago, I was a little cynical. It is, after all, one of my favourite books and I wasn’t sure how well it would translate to the stage; but I left the Crucible that night having had one of the best theatrical experiences I have had in many, many years of theatre going.

Life is Pi is now back in its spiritual home, where it begins its nationwide tour.

There is much more to Pi’s story than it first appears. Based on the much-loved book by Yan Martell, Life of Pi is multi-layered tale with a strong moral undertone, a clear ecological message, a beautiful story of people’s relationship with the animal kingdom and an analogy about belief in multiple faiths – all of which is wrapped in an jaw-dropping adventure of a young man in an impossible situation.

A dark photograph of a large puppet of a tiger.

Life of Pi

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The story is brought alive by a hugely talented cast of actors and puppeteers. Leading the cast is Divesh Subaskaran, who makes his professional debut as Pi.

He excels in the role with a superb performance, wonderful comic timing and a magnetic stage presence. He has so much to do to hold the show together, being on stage for the vast majority of its runtime, but he succeeds in that with ease.

However, he does have to share the star billing with Richard Parker, the tiger, who is so wonderfully brought to life by some immensely talented puppeteers, as are the rest of the animals who appear throughout the story.

The craftsmanship of the puppets is stunning, with each animal looking like it has been constructed from driftwood to tie in with the theme of Pi’s story.

It also feels somewhat underwhelming to describe them simply as puppets, as they are brought to life so magnificently that you quickly forget that they are inanimate objects; you become so quickly absorbed by them as characters in the narrative.

The show is an absolute visual treat and throws everything at the stage to make for a thrilling production. A combination of projections, props, a well-designed set, a beautiful lighting design, belief-suspending puppetry and a chest-reverberating sound design all combine to create an immersive experience, and as the cargo ship does down, you can’t help but feel as though you are part of the tragedy.

There is also genuine emotion in the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker, especially during the latter stages of their journey.

Life of Pi is simply unmissable theatre. Admittedly, it lost a little moving from the open stage of the Crucible to the Lyceum’s more traditional stage, but not enough to detract from such an entertaining and heart-warming evening at the theatre.

My only disappointment was that, as the curtain fell, they did not re-set the stage and start again.

Learn more

Life of Pi is at Sheffield Theatres until 16 September 2023 and tickets can be booked here. Details of Sheffield Theatres accessibility police can be found here.

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