Life of Pi, currently playing at The Lowry Theatre, is absolutely brilliant. 

There can’t be many who haven’t read the book, or seen the film, who haven’t been swept up by the fantastical nature of Pi’s story, until we’re brought up short by a more brutal reality. It's such a complex book, so loaded with characters and with animals, it’s almost a puzzle how anybody thought it could possibly be brought to the stage. It has been, however, and it’s absolutely brilliant. 

Great British Life: Pi strikes a form of peace with Richard ParkerPi strikes a form of peace with Richard Parker (Image: c. Life of Pi)

I was lucky enough to be invited to the press launch of Life of Pi, in the summer, and heard playwright Lolita Chakrabarti talk about how she brought the book to the stage. We also got to hear Puppetry and Movement Director, Finn Caldwell, explain how the puppets were devised, how the puppeteers train (oh my, their absolute athletes) and how carefully both the actors and puppets are cared for. We even got to ‘meet’ Richard Parker, the 450-pound Bengal tiger with who Pi shares his lifeboat during his epic 227 days at sea. He stalked through the assembled guests, pure feline power and threat emanating from him as he passed, causing more than one person to pull away in instinctive response. I knew then this show was going to be good, but I couldn’t have guessed how immersed I could become in the story, all the while with some part of me marvelling at the puppets, the lighting, the cleverness of the storytelling. 

READ MORE: The Life of Pi: the award winning show come to The Lowry

If you don’t know the story, it starts with meeting Pi, or Piscine Patel, (played by Divesh Subaskaran) and his family at their zoo in Pondicherry, in India. It’s 1977, and there is political unrest and rioting in the streets. Pi’s father decides to take his family, and his zoo, away, and manages to gain visas to move everything to Canada. They board the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum, and set off. Disaster strikes and the ship sinks, leaving Pi, along with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and Richard Parker on a small wooden lifeboat. Somehow Pi, with desperate adventures along the way, washes up on a beach in Mexico, and tells his story to a Canadian official and a Japanese representative of the owners of the cargo ship. 

It is during this part of the play that the puppets really come into their own. They are incredibly lifelike, pure representations of the beasts they portray, but it is the skill of the puppeteers that brings them to life. The tiger prowls the boat, each foot placing as carefully as your own domestic cat does as he stalks a mouse. He never lifts his gaze from Pi, a pure threat. Their interactions are beautifully choreographed, with Pi also constantly in motion, keeping his eyes on the beast determined to kill him, until he finds a way to strike an uneasy truce. 

Great British Life: Pi tries to explain his life's philosophy to his confused family and religious leadersPi tries to explain his life's philosophy to his confused family and religious leaders (Image: c. Life of Pi)

The story switches between Pi’s interactions with his two interrogators and his story, told from his hospital bed, starting from the days before they all left Pondicherry, to landing on the beach in Mexico. Those moments in the hospital are stark and bleak: the plain walls of the hospital, the beige suits of the officials, a single hospital bed. When we switch to Pi’s story, the colour floods in, from the brightly coloured clothes of his family in Pondicherry to the dazzling night skies and phosphorescent seas around his lifeboat. The lighting is quite brilliant – we see the waves lapping along the deck as the ship takes on water, we witness the stormy waves and driving rain Pi must endure, and we smile at the shoals of fish gliding around the lifeboat, Pi’s (and Richard Parker’s) saviours. 

I also have to say that Divesh Subaskaran is superb in his role. Life of Pi is his professional debut, and he carries it marvellously. He’s never off stage. His role is extremely physical, he has moments of fury and fear, love and grief, and humorous spats with his sister, Rani, we all can recognise. He delivers one-liners with panache, and switches from sulky teen to challenging philosopher with ease. He’s hopefully got a long and successful career ahead. 

Great British Life: The lighting effects are tremendousThe lighting effects are tremendous (Image: c. Life of Pi)

This is not a play for little ones. The guide says 8+, but I’d argue tweens are the bottom limit. There are moments of cold brutality, both natural (tigers must eat) and unnatural (humans are the most dangerous thing in the zoo) and there is no happy ending. It is, however, wholly gripping, totally beautiful and brilliantly presented, a story that will stick with you, which makes it a pretty perfect play in anybody’s books, I would offer. I took my 17-year-old son, and the moment the lights went up, he said, “that was brilliant.” This from a young man entirely immersed in the world of CGI films and high-resolution online gaming. If he can be swept up into the story, anybody can. 

Life of Pi plays at The Lowry until 7 January 2024.