REVIEW: LIFE OF PI (Wyndham’s Theatre)

Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi was first published in 2001. Since its debut, the novel has sold over ten million copies worldwide, won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and has been adapted into a major feature film directed by Ang Lee. In 2019, Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation premiered at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield before transferring to the Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End in November 2021. Winning five Olivier Awards (including Best New Play), five UK Theatre Awards (including Best New Play) and Best New Play at the WhatsOnStage Awards, Chakrabarti’s stage adaption was a hit with audiences and critics alike. Continuing it’s London run at Wyndham’s Theatre, Life of Pi welcomes a new cast to tell Pi’s extraordinary tale of survival and the human spirit.

Life of Pi revolves around Pi and his family who pack up their zoo, the animals and family onto a boat to Canada to escape Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in the 70s. After a terrible storm the cargo ship sinks in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, and Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with four other survivors – a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Royal Bengal tiger. Time is against them and nature is harsh. Who will survive?

Max Webster directs the new cast of Nuwan Hugh Perera (Amelie, Godspell, Mama Mia! Here we Go Again) as Pi, Davina Moon (Privates on Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, Miss Saigon) as Ma, Ameet Chana (EastEnders, Bend It Like Beckham, Run Fatboy Run) as Father, Tanvi Virmani (The Tempest) as Rani, Saikat Ahamad (Peter Pan, Treasure Island) as Mamaji/Pandit-Ji, Sakuntala Ramanee (East Is East, Coronation Street, EastEnders) as Mrs Biology Kumar/Zaida Khan, Kevin Shen (Yellow Face, The Christmas Prince: A Royal Baby) as Mr Okamoto, Phyllis Ho (Giraffes Can’t Dance, The Vagina Monologues) as Lulu Chen, Kazeem Tosin Amore (The Play That Goes Wrong, A Streetcar Named Desire) as Cook/Voice of Richard Parker.

New puppeteers joining the cast are Owain Gwynn (The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, The Light Princess, War Horse), Rebecca Killick (War Horse, The Worst Witch) and Elan James (The Play That Goes Wrong, War Horse). They join original West End cast members Tom Espiner (Berberian Sound Studio, Kursk) as Father Martin/Commander Grant-Jones and puppeteers: Daisy Franks (The Gruesome Twosome, Rocket Girl), Romina Hytten (The Lorax, Running Wild), Tom Larkin (An Inspector Calls, War Horse) and Tom Stacy (War Horse, The Marked).

Having covered Pi since the play opened on the West End, Nuwan Hugh Perera now steps into the role full time bringing a youthful, playfulness to the role. Not leaving the stage throughout the show, Perera’s energy never faltered as he navigated the highs and lows of Pi’s story with extraordinary emotional maturity. His co-star, the life-sized great Bengal tiger Richard Parker, was brought to life by a rotation of the excellent puppeteers Owain Gwynn, Daisy Franks, Romina Hytten, Elan James, Rebecca Killick, Tom Larkin, Tom Stacy and Kazeem Tosin Amore. Richard Parker is as dangerous as he is necessary and it’s easy to see why the original puppeteers collectively won an Olivier Award for Best Actor In A Supporting Role. As an ensemble, the cast work well together to create a world for Pi that’s heart-breakingly lost as the play progresses and Pi’s story starts to unfold.

Presented on a thrust stage into the heart of Wyndham’s Theatre, Life of Pi is visually stunning throughout. Bringing the animals to life are Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s puppet design (which are more War Horse than Avenue Q) and Finn Caldwell puppet movements that will leave you breathless. Tim Hatley’s set design has the stage transforming from hospital room, to zoo, to market place, to lifeboat and the vast strangeness of the ocean within moments. An inspired set design that kept surprising well into the second act with moments of “how did they do that?” that were utterly superb. Tim Lutkin’s lighting design expertly punctuated and complimented the set while also giving some wow moments of it’s own. While Andrzej Goulding’s stage encompassing video design brought everything together. Offering time and place subtitles ingeniously placed throughout, storms which threw water, the cast and animals around the stage, crashing waves, schools of translucent fish, rain, stars and even submerged the stage under the ocean, Goulding’s design was completely emotionally and visually engrossing. The transcendence felt when all these elements came together was unlike anything else currently on the West End and brought tears to my eyes throughout the evening.

Life of Pi currently has plans for a North American premiere in December of this year as well as an anticipated transfer to Broadway and separate productions in Asia, Australia and Mexico in the works. Currently playing Wyndham’s Theatre, make sure to see this visually stunning and touching production while you can before it leaves London’s shores and concurs the world.

★★★★★

Reviewed by Stuart James