Life of Pi

Jun 27 2024 | By | Reply More

★★★★☆      Visually spectacular

Festival Theatre: Tue 25 – Sat 29 Jun 2024
Review by Hugh Simpson

Considerable theatrical magic can be found in the touring production of Life of Pi at the Festival Theatre. If the staging sometimes overwhelms the storytelling, it is still a production of real impact.

Yann Martel’s celebrated 2001 novel about Pi, a teenager from India who ends up shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, has been adapted more than once – notably as a film. The most recent stage adaptation, by Lolita Chakrabarti in 2019, has been extremely successful, including Olivier and Tony awards – and it is easy to see why.

Pi and Richard Parker. Pic: Johan Persson.

Visually, the production is stunning. Richard Parker and several other animals are brought to life by puppets manipulated by the cast and designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, with Caldwell also responsible for the puppetry and movement direction. The operation of the puppets is absolutely first-rate, with the tiger particularly impressive. Like the best examples of the form, it is never a case of forgetting that there are people operating the animals; instead the combination creates something thoroughly convincing and oddly sympathetic.

The impact of the puppets is matched by the other visual elements; Tim Hatley’s set is wonderfully versatile, and provides a backdrop for the lighting of Tim Lutkin and Tim Deiling, and Carolyn Downing’s sound design.


Too often in such ambitious productions the video design can be intrusive and unsuccessful, but Andrzej Goulding’s work here is breathtaking and adds greatly to the spectacle.

Max Webster’s direction is suitably fluid and pacy, and the central role of Pi, here played by understudy Sonya Venugopal, drives the narrative beautifully. Venugopal’s performance is an energetic and convincing one, but the other characters – well played though they all are – tend to appear one-dimensional in comparison.

Pi and Richard Parker. Pic: Johan Persson.

While the reflections on the nature of storytelling, truth and fiction sit well in a theatrical context, the more philosophical ruminations on faith, choice, the interdependence of life or the nature of reality, come across less well. Too often they seem reduced to aphorisms that are presented in a somewhat over-earnest, almost portentous way. The framing device of Pi relating their journey, moreover, comes across as clunky.

troubling moments

The comparative lack of light and shade is reminiscent of some children’s theatre – something this is definitely not. The recommendation for 8+ seems very much on the low side for a production that has some distinctly troubling moments – 12+ would seem more realistic.

It is undoubtedly unfair to judge this production in the light of its previous reception, or in comparison to certain other animal-puppet-based productions. This may fall short of the highest standards, but as a theatrical experience it is thoroughly impressive.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes (including one interval)
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson St, EH8 9FT
Tuesday 25 – Saturday 29 June 2024
Evenings: 7.30 pm; Matinees Thurs, Sat: 2.30 pm
Details and tickets at: Book here.

A scene from The Life of Pi. Pic Johan Persson.


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