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The five-time Olivier and three-time Tony Award-winning production of Life of Pi has ventured to Canterbury this week as part of its UK and Ireland tour. Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 book about survival and the relationship between the human and animal worlds, the material was previously adapted into a film in 2012 before Lolita Chakrabarti adapted it into a play in 2019. It originally ran in the West End for just over a year at the Wyndham’s Theatre with direction by Max Webster. Based at The Marlowe Theatre for six nights, I was so excited to have the opportunity to review this critically acclaimed production and wow, is it spectacular.
An emotional rollercoaster
Going into Life of Pi, I had limited knowledge of the story, but I knew that it was a tale of survival and adventure. What I didn’t expect was how much of an emotional rollercoaster it would be, from the humorous banter between Pi and his extended family to the powerful segments about seeing the natural world from an entirely different perspective. Divesh Subaskaran plays Pi and in their impressive professional debut, they portray the complex character with ease, encouraging the audience to laugh and reflect along with them. They are supported by a phenomenal cast of performers (including Goldy Notay and Ralph Birtwell as Pi’s Mother and Father), who bring this story to life with sensitivity and conviction, completely capturing the audience’s imaginations and attention.
It goes without saying that Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s puppetry is absolutely magnificent. Clearly the different animals are operated by puppeteers but the puppets are almost skeleton-like, providing space for the performers to either blend into the animal figures or support them. The puppeteers are also dressed in muted colours, allowing the puppets to take centre stage, making you believe in the illusion that there are real animals on stage. It is really cleverly done, particularly in the case of the bengal tiger Richard Parker who is at the centre of the story.
Slick scene transitions
A masterclass in how to seamlessly transition between scenes, the production jumps between past and present timelines with ease, thanks to Caldwell’s cleverly choreographed movements. The transitions are almost dreamlike with animated projections, enchanting music and the swift movement of set pieces, perfectly capturing the state of Pi’s mind as he recounts the 227 days at sea and the past and present events blur together. An additional, much appreciated touch is the projection of typewriter text onto specific elements of the set to illustrate the timeline after a scene change. This aids the flow of the piece, which is largely set in the expansive ocean where time effectively stands still. I so looked forward to each of the time jumps, which is rare considering that is often what makes other shows confusing to follow.
Projections, lighting and overall visual design
The visual design is a collaboration between set and costume designer Tim Hatley, video designer Andrzej Goulding (also The Drifters Girl) and lighting designers Tim Lutkin and Tim Deiling. The present day scenes are based in Mexico, at the hospital where Pi is being treated following his ordeal at sea.
In terms of the flashbacks, early on in the production we get to experience the family’s zoo and the local market in India, which are both full of life and dressed in vibrant colours. As the narrative progresses we are transported to the dark and dreary cargo ship, before everything is stripped back for the ocean scenes. The marine set is simple, focusing on the boat that supports Pi, but when combined with intense weather projections, the audience is transported to the middle of the Pacific Ocean away from everyday life.
There is one particular moment where Pi and Richard Parker are underneath the night sky. When the lighting and projections are presented with a couple of constellation-inspired lighting props, it is quite possibly the most beautiful night sky scene that I have ever witnessed on stage. It really made me think of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night painting.
Live theatre at its best
A top contender for one of my favourite plays of the year, Life of Pi on stage is everything you could hope for from a dramatic play. Featuring unrivalled puppetry and beautiful sets, the creative team have brought this memorable story to life on stage with care and heart. This is a show not to be missed, with last minute tickets available on The Marlowe Theatre’s website. Performances run in Canterbury until Saturday 28th October.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*My ticket for Life of Pi was gifted in exchange for a review.