It’s only happened a handful of times in my theatre going life but last night I had the urge to leap to my feet and instigate a standing ovation. In fact, I felt that way as the interval arrived, the show was that good …. and it only kept getting better from there. The occasion was the long delayed production of Life Of Pi reaching the West End. It is absolutely outstanding in just about every single aspect and features at least half a dozen moments which drew huge intakes of breath from the capacity crowd, they are that astonishing. And yes, it did get the standing ovation as the audience rose as one immediately the play finished.
Maybe it’s partly because we have all been denied the live experience for so long but there was a marked sense of a special occasion and anticipation as the auditorium filled. The stalls of the Wyndhams Theatre have been reconfigured, so they are “stepped” affording everyone a very clear view especially of the stage floor which is absolutely crucial to getting the full experience especially in the scenes set at sea. I don’t know how it all worked when the piece debuted back in June 2019 at the Crucible in Sheffield but here it was absolutely mesmerising with lighting designer Tim Lutkin and video designer Andrzej Goulding transporting us out of our seats and plonking us into the middle of the ocean. Along with the cinematic quality soundscapes of Carolyn Downing the show was a continuous assault on the eyes and ears which by the end of part one had me reeling with delight.
But, of course, at bottom this is still a stage play and without a decent narrative, well drawn characters and top flight acting the spectacle would be just that – a mere spectacle. Fortunately, Yann Martel’s absorbingly original novel has been carefully reconstructed via an intelligent and sympathetic adaptation from Lolita Chakrabarti. She flips the narrative backwards and forwards through time from the Mexican hospital where Pi recuperates to the Pondicherry Zoo where his adventures begin, the voyage to Canada on the fated ship Tsimtsum and the seemingly endless time he is stranded on the lifeboat with the tiger Richard Parker. It’s a real scenic challenge for designer Tim Hatley which he executes stupendously. And the transitions are so brilliantly staged that even if he’d done nothing else (and believe me he certainly has) director Max Webster could be proud of a real coup. Talking of coups, in most shows you will be lucky to see one coup de théâtre. I counted at least three with one of them in the second half being one of the most audacious things I’ve ever seen in a live theatre piece (definitely no spoilers here).
Huge respect to the acting company as well, led by a star making performance from Hiran Abeysekera as Pi who has the lion’s (or rather tiger’s) share of the action. It’s a delicately nuanced performance with moments of serenity punctuated by huge bursts of physicality which can leave you breathless. The rest of the ensemble offer generous support and form a crack team which means nobody can be sitting down for long in the wings. Particularly noticeable/good/commanding/moving/enjoyable are Mina Anwar as a beautifully realised Amma, Nicholas Khan as Pi’s father (there’s some timely delight in the lines he delivers about government corruption), David K.S. Tse as the logical Mr Okamoto and Habib Nasib Nader as the ship’s cook and also the voice of the tiger. Now, if you don’t know the storyline and fear that the production goes all Disney on you at this point, then you couldn’t be further from the truth. Suffice to say in yet just one more amazing scene Richard Parker takes on human characteristics. More generally speaking there are no cutesy animals among this lot. In fact, what we get is nature red in tooth and claw with a particularly distressing moment early on when Buckingham the goat meets its maker; this is decidedly not The Lion King Mk.2.
This leads me to one of THE standout features of the show (amongst so many) which is the use of puppetry. If you thought War Horse had it licked then wait until you see this. I’ve always thought the National Theatre’s horses were stupendous, but I would class the design and manipulation here as infinitely better. For a start there’s a much bigger range of animal life on display. Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell have used what looks like driftwood and other flotsam to create zebras, hyenas, giraffes, meerkats (alright, so there are some cutesy animals), fish (especially brilliantly done), butterflies, the aforementioned goat and a mother and baby oran-utang which are manipulated by the cast under Caldwell’s brilliant supervision. There are two teams of three operating Richard Parker (designated as the head, hind and heart). I’m not sure which trio were on duty last night but whoever you were I’ll never forget that moment when you convinced me that a tiger was really swimming in the sea.
When I first heard that this production of one of my favourite books was being put on in Sheffield and that it would be coming to London, I could hardly wait for it to arrive. That was thirty months ago. The wait has been truly worth it, and this is one of just a handful of shows across fifty years plus of theatre going that I will be revisiting. I absolutely urge you to do the same. Like the original novel the whole production is a thing of wonder and, as with all the best art, I feel that in a profound sense something today is different. I haven’t worked out the riddle yet, but I think Martel sums it up best when he says: “It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards.”