If it isn’t necessarily the best play around, Life of Pi at the Wyndham’s Theatre can seriously lay claim to being one of the finest productions open right now
“I’ve had a terrible trip”
West End theatres may not seem like the most flexible of spaces but there’s clearly an appetite for reconfiguring them at the moment. The Playhouse Theatre has properly transformed into the Kit Kat Club for Cabaret and over at the Wyndham’s Theatre, something really quite special has been done for Life of Pi. It is so cleverly done and the transformation allows Tim Hatley’s set design to recapture much of what made the show work in its highly successful run in Sheffield back in 2019.
I must confess to not having read Yann Martel’s original book nor seen Ang Lee’s film adaptation. And a show that features puppetry so heavily would hardly seem like a natural fit for someone as easily freaked out by would-be naturalistic puppets as I. But the word of mouth was so strong and I do like to try and challenge my preconceptions occasionally (if only to prove I’m right ;-)). And I’m kinda glad I did, as the show really is a visual treat like no other, to borrow from another soon-to-open-in-the-West-End show, truly spectacular spectacular.
Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes have got their puppet design down to a genuine artform, able to conjure any number of unlikely animals onto the stage. And Andrzej Goulding’s video projections create a world of wonder in and around and throughout Hatley’s set. It’s awe-inspiring, frequently magical work, anchored by an extraordinary lead performance from Hiran Abeysekera as Pi, a boy who says he survived being lost at sea on a liferaft with a Bengal tiger, called Richard Parker.
He tells this tale, and many others beside, in flashback from a hospital bed and Max Webster’s production is a masterclass in fluidly effective scene changes. But I suspect my lack of knowledge of the source material let me a down a little, Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation seeming to play to a younger crowd, meaning the darts of philosophical rumination in the script don’t feel as profound as perhaps they could be. That said, there’s a lot to be said for giving yourself up to childlike wonder and not sweating the big stuff.