It's fair to say the standard of shows in the West End since theatres re-opened has been consistently and increasingly high. The bar has been set so any new show that's opening will have a challenge to maintain that level, particularly when it's a long awaited adaptation of a book and movie loved by so many people.
Life of Pi is based on Yann Martel's novel from 2001.11 years later it was turned into a well received and award winning movie, and in 2019 the stage version debuted with a limited run in Sheffield. Now, much later than originally planned, it finally arrives in the West End.
Telling the story of a boy and his tiger stranded on a lifeboat, Life of Pi might not seem like the most obvious choice for a stage adaptation and certainly not the easiest. Fantastical stories allow you to use your imagination in books while multi-million dollar budgets allow all the best effects for movies but on stage, capturing that same sense of wonder to create complete escapism is not as straightforward to pull off.
To say the creative team behind Life of Pi rise to the occasion would be a serious understatement. Tim Hatley's set design is jawdroppingly good - incredibly creative and innovative, full of hidden surprises. Some of the best staging I have ever seen, I was left shocked at how the story was unfolding in front of my eyes. Seamless transitions from one scene to another leave fully functioning zoos popping up suddenly, while the way the lifeboat first makes an appearance is a real stroke of genius. Amazing video projections, designed by Andrezj Goulding, truly allow the staging to come to life, giving the illusion the audience are somehow in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Life is also created on stage by some clever use of movement with ensemble cast members carrying Pi from one moment to the next. For this production, the stalls level at the Wyndham's had to be completely ripped out and recreated in order to fit this brilliant and complex set with careful consideration to ensure every seat in the house allows the magic to leap off of the stage.
The titular Pi is played by Hiran Abeysekera - a remarkable actor who channels the very core of the character. Withdrawn at times, over-enthusiastic at others, he is a joy to watch giving a stellar performance. While stage time for the other actors is far less, the always fantastic Mina Anwar gives a fantastic performance as Amma, Payal Mistry was a delight I longed to see more of as Rani, while Kirsten Foster and David K.S Tse make a brilliant double act as Lulu Chen and Mr Okamoto.
Of course, the humans aren't the only actors on stage. Life of Pi is packed full of animals - from zebras to turtles and, of course, a certain tiger named Richard Parker. Like War Horse meets The Lion King (Can we call this 'The Pion King'?) the puppetry is incredible. Designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, there is nothing cartoonish or cute about these puppets. Gritty and real, they really allow the audience to escape and believe there is a real tiger on that stage which creates the sense of real danger... as well as surprisingly endearing them to us as characters. If there is an award for Best animal at the next Oliviers, Richard Parker has it in the bag.
The story is full of heart. While the book is more philosophical, it's core themes are still present here. A tale of survival and examining what truth exactly is, watching the tale of Pi and Richard Parker stranded at sea for 227 days could become old fast. That does even come close to happening here, ensuring the unique staging and rapid storytelling never gets boring. From setting up Pi's back story with his family to the tragic events that lead to him being on the lifeboat, all the way up to a twist that sets up a satisfying conclusion, it really is a captivating watch from beginning to end.
Quite honestly, I didn't know what to expect from Life of Pi. While I liked the film, I wasn't confident it could be convincingly recreated on stage. Boy, was I wrong! With some of the best staging I have ever seen, incredibly puppetry, beautiful imagery and a brilliant albeit strange story, Life of Pi really is one of the greatest plays the West End has seen in a long time and one of the theatre highlights of the year. It may have taken its time to get here but it was most definitely worth the wait. Pure theatre magic, and a real visual feast, see it if you can and prepare to be amazed!
Life of Pi is playing at Wyndham's Theatre until February 27th 2022.
Tickets available from www.lifeofpionstage.com
Photos by Johan Persson.