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Life of Pi


Wyndham’s Theatre

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

Wyndham’s Theatre

Reviewed – 29th November 2021



“This is theatre at its most hallucinatory and wonderful, yet fundamentally simplistic; created by a collective vision that you forget is there.”


“Which story do you prefer?” asks Piscine “Pi” Patel of the two Japanese officials investigating the shipwreck from which he is the only survivor. We are approaching the end of this fantastical tale and it is a beautifully pertinent and intentional moment. It is a much more satisfying question rather than “which story they think is the true one”. ‘Life is a story’ and ‘You can choose your story’ are just two of the themes that wash up from the cruel sea of allegories that “Life of Pi” presents. Choosing what you believe and, in turn, controlling those beliefs is as treacherous as taming a Bengal tiger.

Transferring from Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre (delayed by the pandemic), Max Webster’s production, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti from Yann Martel’s novel, has predictably been hailed the new “War Horse”. Yet it is a different beast entirely. As intricate and astonishing as the puppetry is, the magic is also created from the enthralling central performances and the jaw-dropping stage craft. Under Webster’s sabre-sharp direction, the entire team of designers and cast capture the imagination, not just of the author, but of the audience too. It melds them into one of the same, both feeding off each other. It is an almost miraculous feat that is achieved, not from high tech wizardry, but from sheer inventiveness and trust in the human mind.

While Finn Caldwell’s and Nick Barnes’ puppetry breathe life into the wild creatures that pace the stage, Hiran Abeysekera’s central performance as ‘Pi’ is the life-force that pulses through the piece. Abeysekera pulls us into his worlds; his childhood at his father’s zoo, the hospital recovery ward, and onto his lifeboat. We willingly share his perils as he survives over seven months adrift on the Pacific Ocean. Originally accompanied by a hyena, zebra, orangutan and Bengal tiger, he is eventually alone with just the tiger. ‘Pi’ survives in part by acting upon profound philosophical questions that come to him like ghosts; and by pulling shreds of advice from his memory. “Use everything you have and defy the odds”. This latter truism can definitely be applied to the design of the piece in which the minds of Tim Hatley (set), Tim Lutkin (lighting) and Andrzej Goulding (video) have merged to conjure a breath-taking backdrop to the tale. There is a spell-binding moment when ‘Pi’ leaps off his boat into the ocean, vanishing in front of our eyes only to reappear elsewhere from the waves. No high-tech wizardry. Just inventive trickery.

This is theatre at its most hallucinatory and wonderful, yet fundamentally simplistic; created by a collective vision that you forget is there. In the same way, we are aware that the puppets – most noticeably the tiger – are being controlled by four different puppeteers, yet we don’t see them in our minds. What we see is the personality of a sentient creature vividly conjured by the language of its movement. The beast becomes human.

‘Pi’ tells us more than one story. We have his story with animals – fantastical, spiritual and dreamlike. And we have the harsh, scientific realism. “Which story do you prefer?” Pi asks, while provoking our silent answer with “You want a story to confirm what you already know”. This production challenges what we might already know about theatre but also, without a shadow of a doubt, reinforces our belief in the power of theatre. Long after you leave the auditorium, you will be bound by its spell. Abeysekera’s witty, compelling, and poised performance depicts a solo voyage. Surrounded by an incredible, indispensable company of actors it manages to transcend a single life. This is life itself. A fantastic voyage. This is Theatre.



Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Johan Persson


Life of Pi

Wyndham’s Theatre until 27th February


More shows reviewed by Jonathan this year:
Abba Mania | ★★★★ | Shaftesbury Theatre | May 2021
Abigail’s Party | ★★★★ | Park Theatre | November 2021
Amélie The Musical | ★★★★ | Criterion Theatre | June 2021
Back To The Future | ★★★★ | Adelphi Theatre | October 2021
Bad Days And Odd Nights | ★★★★★ | Greenwich Theatre | June 2021
Be More Chill | ★★★★ | Shaftesbury Theatre | July 2021
Big Big Sky | ★★★★ | Hampstead Theatre | August 2021
Bklyn The Musical | ★★★★★ | Online | March 2021
Brian and Roger | ★★★★★ | Menier Chocolate Factory | November 2021
Brief Encounter | ★★★ | Watermill Theatre Newbury | October 2021
Cinderella | ★★★★★ | Gillian Lynne Theatre | August 2021
Constellations | ★★★★ | Vaudeville Theatre | August 2021
Cruise | ★★★★★ | Duchess Theatre | May 2021
Disenchanted | ★★★ | Online | April 2021
Express G&S | ★★★★ | Pleasance Theatre | June 2021
Fever Pitch | ★★★★ | Hope Theatre | September 2021
Forever Plaid | ★★★★ | Upstairs at the Gatehouse | June 2021
Forgetful Heart | ★★★★ | Online | June 2021
Heathers | ★★★ | Theatre Royal Haymarket | July 2021
Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act | ★★ | Playground Theatre | September 2021
Indecent Proposal | ★★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse | November 2021
Le Petit Chaperon Rouge | ★★★★ | The Coronet Theatre | November 2021
Little Women | ★★★★ | Park Theatre | November 2021
My Night With Reg | ★★★★ | The Turbine Theatre | July 2021
Night Mother | ★★★★ | Hampstead Theatre | October 2021
Operation Mincemeat | ★★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse | August 2021
Preludes in Concert | ★★★★★ | Online | May 2021
Rainer | ★★★★★ | Arcola Theatre | October 2021
Remembering the Oscars | ★★★ | Online | March 2021
Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Hung Parliament | ★★★★ | Online | February 2021
Staircase | ★★★ | Southwark Playhouse | June 2021
The Cherry Orchard | ★★★★ | Theatre Royal Windsor | October 2021
The Hooley | ★★★★★ | Chiswick House & Gardens | June 2021
The Picture of Dorian Gray | ★★★★ | Online | March 2021
The Rice Krispie Killer | ★★★★ | Lion and Unicorn Theatre | August 2021
The Two Character Play | ★★★★ | Hampstead Theatre | July 2021
The Windsors: Endgame | ★★★ | Prince of Wales Theatre | August 2021
When Darkness Falls | ★★★ | Park Theatre | August 2021
Witness For The Prosecution | ★★★★★ | London County Hall | September 2021
Yellowfin | ★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse | October 2021
You Are Here | ★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse | May 2021
When Jazz Meets Flamenco | ★★★ | Lilian Baylis Studio | November 2021


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Cambridge Arts Theatre & UK Tour



Cambridge Arts Theatre

Reviewed – 26th March 2019



“Ira Mandela Siobhan’s physical work is outstanding; it is the best kind of theatrical alchemy to watch him embody this elegant, muscular, powerful animal”


Moments into Equus, we discover that the seventeen year old Alan Strang has blinded six horses with a spike, in the stable in which he works. As the play unfolds, we journey with Martin Dysart, Alan’s psychiatrist, into the depths of the boy’s psyche, and come to understand what has led him to commit this atrocious act. In the process of treating Alan, Dysart’s psyche too comes under the microscope, and he examines himself, his marriage, and his profession, and finds himself wanting. Dysart is enraptured by the art and culture of Ancient Greece, and Alan has created his own magnificent pagan religion, headed by the horse-god Equus; the play thus also deals with the theme of spiritual need and desire in the modern world.

The modern world in this play is that of England in the 1970s; so, not so modern any more. And Equus, though still a finely wrought piece of dramatic writing, has not aged well. The prime reason for this is the clear undercurrent of misogyny that runs through the play. Women do not fare well in this piece, whether it be Dysart’s unseen wife knitting for the children she will never have or Alan’s obsessive and frigid Christian mother Dora. Even the lively, open young woman who works with Alan – Jill Mason – is seen to be part of the same underlying problem: these women are ultimately mired in the prosaic, literal, domestic world, and as such can only drag men down, and away from their pure, mythic inheritance. This is an old trope, it is writ large here, and as such begs the question, why is Ned Bennett choosing to tell this story now? In 21st century Britain, we are not short of male myth-makers in love with the classical past – Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson spring to mind for starters.

That said, there are some extraordinary moments in this production, and Shelley Maxwell’s exceptional movement direction certainly deserves every award going. The play opens with a movement sequence between Alan (Ethan Kai) and the horse Nugget (Ira Mandela Siobhan) which sets the tone for the strength and erotic beauty of these scenes throughout. Ira Mandela Siobhan’s physical work is outstanding; it is the best kind of theatrical alchemy to watch him embody this elegant, muscular, powerful animal. Keith Gilmore brings Trojan to life in a similar way, and the world of the horses in this production will definitely be remembered in the annals of theatrical history. Alan’s central nightmare sequence was also extraordinarily powerful; the ideal marriage of physical work, a strong directorial eye and excellent sound and lighting design – special credit here to Giles Thomas for his perfectly judged original score.

Ned Bennett’s direction is not understated. It is an assault. When it works it is breathtaking, but when it doesn’t, the crunch of bone on bone is simply excruciating, as here, in the ill-judged scene in the blue cinema, in which all nuance was lost. He is a force to be reckoned with for sure, and is clearly attracting some fine actors to his projects. Zubin Varla was tremendous as Dysart, holding the stage with every tic and nicotine-stained breath, and Ethan Kai too was compelling – tense with the pressure of so much repressed love and pain until the dam finally burst. The stylisation of the satellite characters was a directorial choice that didn’t work for this reviewer, but it did serve firmly to keep them out of Dysart and Alan’s central planetary dance, which still holds a certain fascination.


Reviewed for thespyinthestalls.com

Photography by The Other Richard



Cambridge Arts Theatre until 30th March then UK Tour continues


Previously reviewed at this venue:
A Song At Twilight | ★★★★ | March 2019
Cambridge Footlights | ★★★★ | March 2019


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