I was invited to see the new cast of hit West End show Life of Pi last night – I had visited before as a paying punter to see the puppets close-up from the front row.
This time would be a chance to step back and see everything great about the show, including those sensational floor projections which give time, place and energy to the play.
Pi (Chirag Benedict Lobo at this performance) is a young man rescued from the water after a shipwreck.. He is dehydrated, hungry, intelligent, confused, and hard to read. When questioned, he enters into a fantastical tale of escape which includes a menagerie of animals.
With the framing device of a hospital where he is recovering, Pi answers the questions of an insurance investigator and we see the story as he tells it – from the childhood at his family’s zoo in India, to their ambition to cross to Canada on a cargo ship, and the lonely survival on a lifeboat with just one Richard Parker, Bengal tiger, for company.
Life of Pi really showcases the technical skills of the set (Tim Hatley), lighting (Tim Lutkin) and sound (Carolyn Downing) designers, and the team of puppeteers under puppet and movement director Finn Caldwell. In Max Webster’s imaginative show, Yann Martel’s book comes to life in Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation.
The puppets are undoubtedly the stars, from Richard Parker down to the tiniest of meerkat residents in the zoo. Each animal is given movement and sound which makes them seem real – but you can also watch the work of those creating the animal if you wish.
When this isn’t an option, and once the story gets underway, the floor of the stage becomes everything from a sea full of fish to an expansive map.
The stage revolves, rises, and has some hidden tricks that have the ability to surprise. Against all this is logic, religion, culture, custom, survival, and ultimately “what makes the better story”. Lobo does well as Pi, showing a teenage vulnerability in the hospital, and a pragmatic security at sea.
As his doomed family, Davina Moon (Ma), Ameet Chana (Father), and Tanvi Virmani (Rani) make their mark, while Owain Gwynn (at this performance) adds a touch of danger as the cook/voice of Richard Parker.
Comparing my two viewing experiences, I liked both. Seeing the puppets close-up is incredible, and you really see the detail put into creating every moment of their existence.
From higher up, this aspect is still impressive and emotive, but the lighting design and scope of the clever staging is seen at its best.
I had a tear or two at the end of this symbolic and powerful tale, which leaves the West End on 15 January 2023. If you can, take yourself along to catch one of the most imaginative shows out there: tickets here.
Image credit: Ellie Kurttz