Starring: Hiran Abeysekera, Mina Anwar, Tom Espiner, Kirsten Foster, Raj Ghatak, Nicholas Khan, Syreeta Kumar, Payal Mistry, Habib Nasib Nader
Writer: Lolita Chakrabarti; Director: Max Webster
A play that swept the Olivier Awards in London this year with five trophies, including for Best New Play, and based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, ‘Life of Pi’ certainly comes packed with pedigree. As a story that begins in 1970s India and then journeys across the high seas to capture the sheer grit and endurance of a hapless teenage boy, this fictional tale has a lot going for it.
Piscine/Pi Patel (Abeysekera) is undoubtedly coping with some trauma as he is visited by two officials in a hospital to find out more about the shipwreck in which he lost his family and beloved animals from a zoo run by his father. For the insurance official keen to close the file on this story of a miraculous sole survivor, it is an exasperating experience to try and coax the “truth” out of Pi about exactly what sank the vessel that was carrying his family from the shores of Pondicherry to Canada.
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While the Canadian embassy official accompanying him seems more sympathetic to Pi’s flights of fancy, even she struggles with some of his claims of taming his co-habiting Royal Bengal Tiger while on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The duo gets pulled into an intricate narrative as Pi relives his blissful childhood with Amma (Anwar), his father (Khan) and maths whizz older sister Rani (Mistry) as caretakers of a zoo packed with a playful zebra, a clever orangutan and a ferocious hyena. It is when the tiger is brought in to inject an added oomph to the zoo that Pi is forced to face up to the dangers posed by the carnivorous nature of some animals.
Will the two officials succeed in dragging the so-called “truth” out of Pi Patel or will they get swept away by his fantastical tale?
British Indian writer Lolita Chakrabarti’s retelling does full justice to this complex and rich story as the play, as in Martel’s enduring 2002 fiction, offers a truly engrossing tale replete with breath-taking imagery. It is difficult for words to capture the sheer extravagance of the Olivier Award winning sets and lighting. But it is the parallel puppeteering cast, which collectively bagged the Best Supporting Actor trophy, that inject this play with a sublime quality. Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell have achieved a near miracle with their puppet designs as the audience soon forgets these are simply human-controlled objects and not the real, roaring and menacing animals that they depict.
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Abeysekera as Pi richly deserves his Best Actor Award for displaying a level of boundless energy that is mesmerising to watch. He is ably supported by the cast and crew, with not a single member out of sync in this exuberant production.
It is no wonder that this show has had its West End run extended until October and is even scheduled for its American premiere later this year. ‘Life of Pi’ is most definitely in the category of unmissable and invigorating plays for all members of the family.
*Info: Life of Pi