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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Life of Pi (Theatre Royal Glasgow)

A wild yet meditative adaptation

How do you create an ocean on stage, my boyfriend questions as we queue outside Theatre Royal? As countless Tempest adaptations have proven it is more than possible – but that is one short scene. Even then, they had the privilege of having multiple characters to exchange dialogue, unlike the lonesome Pi of Yan Mantel’s novel, accompanied only by a tiger in a row boat for months. How can the isolation and grandeur of that concept be sustained for an entire play? Spectacularly, that is how.

For those new to the story, it tells an almost biblical tale of Pi Patel, who is moving to Canada with his family and the exotic residents of their zoo when the cargo ship sinks leaving him the sole survivor. The headline attraction of the performance is the puppetry – and it isn't hard to see why. Aesthetically they look like they have been assembled from bright-coloured driftwood, which is pretty on its own, but their articulation and the personality of their movement is where the mastery of designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell really shows. Every animal has a focal point that sells them perfectly – the arched back of the hyena, the dangling arms of the orangutan, and the menacing prowl of the tiger. When we first see him leap on his prey it is enough to send shivers down your spine and turn a vegetarian’s stomach.

But as stunning as the puppets are, the real star of this production is Divesh Subskaran as Pi. His Pi is playful, inquisitive, and above all humble. He can make deep philosophies sound like natural observations and bravery seem like second nature – which makes it all the more affecting when we see him hurt and traumatised after the fact. This role is a gift, and Subskaran knows what to do with it. The same is true for playwright Lolita Chakrabarti when it comes to Mantel’s writing because she knows which lines to pick from the novel and how to let them shine. At the same time, she knows what to leave out – fans of the film will notice this adaptation has no romantic arc and no Canadian journalist, but that leaves room to focus on the core of the story and to tell it well theatrically. This includes clever contrivances like having the lost family members give advice and sometimes scorn in times of need, which gives us a greater sense of what he has lost rather than just focusing on the adventure.


It is often cheap and rarely true to say a performance has everything – that you will laugh and cry and ponder the depths of its themes long afterwards, but all that is true of Life of Pi. It is inventively staged, superbly acted and tells a powerful story without cliché or schmaltz. It is one of those rare adaptations that is not only a good night out but fills you with an uncanny, almost religious gratitude that you were able to see it for yourself. Five stars.

Whispers from the Crowd: "it was magical, all of it. You forget the actors are playing the animals"

Life of Pi has completed its run at Theatre Royal Glasgow but will play at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh from the 25th to the 29th of June


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