Wednesday, July 24

Life of Pi – Liverpool Empire

To the reader, few adaptations of a beloved novel are as magical as the images we create in our own head, the scenes conjured in our mind’s eye. Life of Pi at the Liverpool Empire aims high and, boy, does it succeed. 

The seventeen-year-old Pi, leaving Pondicherry for a new life in Canada with his family and a veritable ark of zoo animals, is the sole survivor of the ensuing shipwreck. Adrift at sea for 277 days in the company of an adult Bengal tiger, improbably named Richard Parker and whom he must master or be eaten by, he must also overcome the hurdles of a ravaging hyena, hunger, lack of shelter and fresh water, the strictures of his own vegetarianism and, surreally, an island of cannibalistic plants.

In the past 20 years productions such as War Horse and His Dark Materials have pioneered the art of puppetry in storytelling, not just pulling the strings of mere marionettes but conjuring life from a collection of hardware and textiles. With animals forming some of the central characters of this story, it was essential that the creative team portrayed them convincingly, and this they did with bells on.

Photo: Johan Persson

Full animal costume creates little more than a pantomime horse and this story is not meant to be funny. So it is that the beasts are represented in a spare, pared down intimation, dislocated elements of essence of tiger – a ponderous tail, a warning stripe – held together by Finn Caldwell’s most extraordinary choreography. Three performers are required to operate Richard Parker’s head, heart and hind, two of whom are required to crouch inside the exoskeleton in what must be a back-breaking task. Yet the effect as the Bengal tiger paces the stage or leaps aloft is one of signature feline power and grace.

Similarly, Orange Juice the orang-utan undulates with a beguiling simian sinuousness and Black-and-White, the zebra, merely a collection of articulated dazzles, canters and kicks in an utterly convincing display of equine movement. And, my absolute favourite, the fish which flicker and fin around Pi’s boat.

Magical as the menagerie is, and as charming as Divesh Subaskaran is in the eponymous role, the real star of the show is the lighting. Devised by a pair of Tims (Lutkin and Deiling), projections evoke in turn dappled vegetation under the warmth of an Indian sun or rain-lashed, crashing waves or a star-strung night at sea.

I was mildly irked by a confusion of accents, from India to England and the US, but there is so much disbelief to suspend in a story about sharing a small boat with a man-eating tiger for the best part of a year, whose puppet is operated by three performers who do not have powers of invisibility, that it would seem churlish to focus on that.

At its heart, Life of Pi examines the philosophy of life: how we interpret our own stories, the nature of reality and truth, and whether it is preferable to live under the harsh light of science or with wonder and faith. Go and see this production and choose wonder.

Playing until 4th May,

Reviewer: Miranda Green

Reviewed: 30th April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.