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Pictures: Johan Persson

Life of Pi

Birmingham Hippodrome


Every so often along comes a production that reminds you of the wonder and magic of theatre, a world full of imagination and a staunch guardian of the ancient art of storytelling.

Sales of Yann Martel’s novel have topped 10 million copies and the book has spawned a hit film which is a twin challenge the stage version meets head on with a zooful of puppets, a set awash with wonder and ingenuity, telling video projections and a cast who make you believe.

First though, a confession, I have neither read the book nor seen the film, so with no reference point or comparison to cling to, this was a production that had to stand on its own two feet, or six feet if you count the tiger, and stand it did as a brilliant piece of theatre.

It is the story of Pi, a name he shortened from his given name of Piscine, named in honour of a Parisian swimming pool . . . each to their own I suppose. Piscine had been generating unsavoury nicknames at school – no prizes for guessing the likely sobriquets.

We first meet him in hospital where he is recovering after being washed ashore in a lifeboat on a Mexican beach after 227 days at sea following a shipwreck in a storm.

The teenage Pi is played by Divesh Subaskaran, who, the programme tells us, is making his professional debut. Without the programme you would never have known it. He is all action, at times funny, sad, inquisitive, angry . . . and drops in throwaway lines with aplomb. It is a quite wonderful performance; he is on stage all the time, carrying the entire production. A name to watch out for.

Ralph Birtwell as his father sets the course of the story. He runs a zoo in Pondicherry and in 1977, when the political situation in India, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has become volatile with her imposed “Emergency” in force, he decides, for his family’s safety, to up sticks and take his family, and his animals, to Canada on a Japanese freighter.


Move on seven months or so and that is when our story begins with Pi, the sole survivor of the sinking of the storm battered cargo ship, in hospital being looked after by a Canadian official and being questioned by a Japanese official who merely wants to find out what had happened.

Pi had found himself on a life raft with a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutan, and then, putting the cat, very large cat, among the pigeons, a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker climbs aboard  – his name the result of a mix up in the paperwork.

And it is the puppets (puppet designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell) which help to bring the story to life from shoals of fish and butterflies to a remarkable lifelike swimming turtle. We meet the friendly bull at a gate goat, the ill-fated Buckingham, and Orange Juice, the gangly Orangutan swinging through the sinking ship, the frightened zebra and, sharing star billing with Pi, Richard Parker, the magnificent Bengal tiger. 

We discovered in another magical production, War Horse, that life size puppets on stage come alive, take on characters of their own, the skilled puppeteers becoming almost invisible, Richard Parker may be wires, rods and fabric and filler, but to an audience he is a tiger, with the look, mannerisms and even the sounds of tiger.

The life of Pi challenges its audience, throwing in moral and philosophical dilemmas, which sounds heavy going, but it isn’t. Pi drops in a question here and there which makes you stop and think. For example he has decided to follow Christianity, Hinduism and Islam because he just wants to love God, so which religion is best, if any, and if you don’t believe in God then it is still a belief, you still believe in something even if it is not believing.

Then there is truth. What is it? Is truth the best story or just the version you believe most? The problem is that we might have an opinion but no more because they are questions with no definitive answer.

In what is at heart an adventure story, Pi drops the tiny nuggets of doubt into our otherwise tranquil lives – tranquil at least where the meaning of life is concerned.

But that is something to think about on the way home and in days to come, on stage is action and adventure in a masterclass of stagecraft.

Around Pi is a set from Tim Hatley which transforms from hospital ward to zoo, to bustling market place, to freighter, to lifeboat on the vast ocean at the drop of a hat, doors, windows, panels opening into new worlds in a masterpiece of invention.

The illusion is aided at times by Andrzej Goulding’s video designs of waves, stars or whatever is needed projected on a back wall and telling lighting from Tim Lutkin and TimDeiling.

The result is a magnificent piece of theatre and storytelling to fire our imagination, and to leave us with a question to ponder on what really is truth. Is it the best story, or the most logical story? Perhaps it’s even neither.

Directed by Max Webster, Pi will be shipwrecked with Richard Parker to 17-02-24 

Roger Clarke


Pi will be washing up on the stage of Wolverhampton Grand, 23-27 April. 2024

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