Review: Life of Pi offers remarkable spectacle on the Chichester stage

Life of Pi, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, from the novel by Yann Martel, directed by Max Webster, Chichester Festival Theatre, until Dec 2.
Life of Pi. Pic by Johan PerssonLife of Pi. Pic by Johan Persson
Life of Pi. Pic by Johan Persson

The great news is that you can believe all the hype. Life of Pi, on the Chichester Festival Theatre stage until the start of the festive season, really is a unique and remarkable spectacle.

On the surface, it’s the decidedly unlikely tale of an Indian girl (in this case) who survives hundreds of days lost at sea with a famished Bengal tiger. In fact, it turns out to be, considerably more interestingly, a meditation on the things we might do to cope when our reality is so awful as to be beyond all imagining.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Is one approach to construct an alternative version of that reality? In which case, belief and faith come into play, natural allies for a young girl we already know is set on looking for something greater. And this is what takes us to the most powerful of endings after a first half which is perhaps just a little bit short of the emotional grab the piece really needs.

Driving it all is a quite brilliant performance from Tanvi Virmani as Pi, the boy (in this case girl) at the heart of it all, a survivor forced to relive from her hospital bed the shocking tragedy her family, travelling to Canada in search of a new life, suffers when the ship they are sailing on sinks in a storm. Pi is the sole survivor – and she clings to existence, so it seems, on a lifeboat in the company of a tiger after a hyena quickly savages an injured zebra and promptly bites the head off an orang-utan who’s also slipped aboard.

Virmani gives us the despair, the resilience and the clinging to hope. She also gives us the trauma and the unlikely coping in a performance all the more remarkable for the fact that for the most part she’s sharing the stage with a quite stunningly realised tiger – animated with precision, persuasiveness and a genuine sense of life by a hugely-skilled team including former Chichester Festival Youth Theatre member Romina Hytten.

From the moment the tiger first appears, it moves and it lives and it breathes, the puppeteers fading into the background as the tiger prowls and kills and then oddly starts to accommodate to Pi’s peculiar circumstances.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

There are times when the sheer sense of spectacle of the piece possibly tips the balance a little too much in favour of simply looking rather than feeling. In the first half, despite the pace and flow of the action, the variety and the exoticism of the settings, it’s actually just a little bit difficult to feel overly moved and involved in it all. You are watching and you are admiring and you are impressed – but for a long time the whole thing stops short of grabbing you emotionally. But then in a much more focused, markedly superior second half, the involvement starts to come as the possibilities of what we are actually watching start to unravel. And then the ending packs the punch. Memorable indeed.