Review: The Life of Pi - this is how you create a life-size tiger on Chichester's stage

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one of the 21st century’s blockbuster novels which challenges the nature of reality and how it is told. Complex, multi-layered and with a Bengal tiger and an Indian boy adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean it does not easily lend itself to a stage play. Gary Shipton was in the audience at Chichester Festival Theatre to see how this adaptation fared.
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There is really only one way to stage a tiger on a lifeboat along with an injured zebra, a spotted hyena, an orangutan – and that is by employing the most amazing life-size puppets.

The puppets on the Chichester stage and their manipulation are amazing.

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They need to be to see through a story-line in which the hyena kills the first two before it is consumed by the tiger in hiding.

Life of Pi at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan PerssonLife of Pi at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Life of Pi at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

As for Pi, the young Indian – played by alternating actors depending on which performance you watch – his challenge is to survive the bloodbath, tame the tiger, and keep himself alive for 227 days after the shipwreck which forced him to take refuge in the lifeboat.

If the plot sounds as hard to swallow as the zebra and the orangutan then you are not alone. When Pi is interviewed in hospital at the end of his ordeal by a team of two dispatched to establish the cause of the shipwreck, they too find it equally difficult to believe.

So Pi offers them an alternative version of events – and asks them which story they prefer.

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This is a bold, visual production which manages to persuade the eye that we really are at sea in a tiny tub surrounded by fish and a poor turtle that ultimately provides a meal to sustain the young hero.

A special shout-out for the puppetry and movement director Finn Caldwell and puppet designer Nick Barnes. They have created a piece of living art.

Some of the book’s more complex philosophy is happily left on the page – but with great vision and clear story-telling this production does bring the story of Pi to life.