“Life of Pi” returns to Sheffield at the Lyceum Theatre, marking a homecoming for a production that originally captivated audiences at the Crucible Theatre in 2019 before making its way to London’s West End and Broadway. This adaptation of Yann Martel’s beloved novel showcases Divesh Subaskaran in his professional debut as Pi, and it strives to recapture the magic of its earlier performances. As the first UK tour for this epic journey of endurance and hope begins, the question remains: Can this production, now returning to its roots, maintain the enchantment that made it a critical success, or will it face new challenges in its hometown?
Subaskaran’s rendition of Pi is marked by a remarkable level of confidence and emotional depth. He effortlessly navigates Pi’s complex journey, portraying a character who is stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger and other animals. Subaskaran’s portrayal allows the audience to connect with Pi’s emotional struggles and hope for survival, creating a strong emotional anchor for the narrative.
However, as exceptional as Subaskaran’s performance is, the production faces several challenges that affect its overall impact. Notably, there have been changes to the set design since the 2019 debut, with the intention of replicating the grandeur of the West End and Broadway productions. Unfortunately, these changes do not always enhance the experience. For instance, the assembly of Pi’s boat on stage is slow, clunky and lacks fluidity, a distracting and incongruous element that takes away from the immersion in the story.
Amidst its attempts to tell the gripping story of a teenager stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, “Life of Pi” weaves a tapestry of intriguing themes, including religion and truth. These thematic elements add depth to the narrative, inviting the audience to contemplate profound questions about faith and the nature of reality. However, these themes sometimes remain tantalizingly unexplored, lacking the depth and development they deserve. It’s as if the production skims the surface of these rich topics, leaving the audience yearning for a more profound exploration.
Moreover, while the adaptation remains faithful to Yann Martel’s source material, there are moments when the book’s dialogue feels stilted on stage. This occasionally disrupts the flow of the narrative, making it challenging for the audience to fully engage with the characters and their interactions.
The projection design by Andrzej Goulding emerges as one of the production’s standout visual elements. Goulding’s masterful use of projections elevates the storytelling to a mesmerising level. Through a carefully orchestrated blend of digital imagery and stagecraft, the audience is transported across the vast Pacific Ocean, sharing in Pi’s awe-inspiring journey of survival. The projections effectively capture the ever-changing moods of the sea, shifting from calm serenity to tempestuous turmoil with breathtaking precision. Additionally, the use of projections adds a layer of dreamlike surrealism to the narrative, blurring the lines between reality and imagination, mirroring Pi’s own mental and emotional journey. Goulding’s work, at its best, becomes a character in itself, immersing the audience in the heart of the story and ensuring that the visual spectacle remains a memorable and integral part of this theatrical adaptation. The lighting design (Tim Lutkin), while conceptually good, was unfortunately marred by technical issues which detracted from the overall experience.
The puppetry (Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell) used to depict the animals aboard the lifeboat is technically proficient, providing realistic movements and appearances. However, this proficiency does not translate into emotional depth or character development for these creatures. Consequently, there’s a noticeable gap in connecting the audience with these essential elements of the story.
Pacing emerges as another stumbling block for “Life of Pi.” The exposition takes a lengthy duration, delaying the plot’s progression and character development. While the central character of Pi receives depth, supporting characters remain underexplored, leaving dramatic moments feeling rushed and lacking in tension.
Spatial and set design choices also hamper the production’s ability to fully immerse the audience. The attempt to recreate the vastness of the ocean and the hopelessness of Pi’s situation through the stage design, particularly the walls, falls short. Contrastingly, excessive unused space at times results in scenes that should be bustling and engaging, like the zoo and market, feeling strangely deserted.
In conclusion, “Life of Pi” at Sheffield Lyceum offers a mixed theatrical experience. Divesh Subaskaran’s exceptional performance as Pi provides a compelling emotional core. The visual elements are stunning and a true sight to behold. Pacing and character development concerns, along with spatial challenges, limit the production from achieving the full emotional resonance of Yann Martel’s novel. While it commendably attempts to bring a beloved story to the stage, this production falls short of fully capturing the heart and essence it aspires to convey.