The Booker prize-winning Life of Pi comes to the stage as part of its first UK tour, stopping at The Alhambra where Leo Owen caught the show

Working closely with the source novel’s writer, Yann Martel, Lolita Chakrabarti lovingly transfers from the page to the stage. Using an interview as a framing device, Chakrabarti opens the play in a hospital room. Here, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, Pi, seeks refuge but is forced to relive the past when questioned about events leading up to his discovery. The Canadian embassy and shipping investigators want answers, resulting in flashbacks of Pi’s family background being enacted.

Tim Hatley’s vibrant design instantly transports us to 1970s’ Pondicherry and Pi’s idyllic family background, growing up in a zoo. In the pre-trauma scenes there’s a real sense of energy, colour and the bustle of India. Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s puppetry is of course vital in creating this vibe, including a particularly impressive hyena, zebra, orangutan and Royal Bengal tiger. Caldwell favours a War Horse-eque look and approach with three actors visibly encompassing larger beasts in order to master expressive nuances. Both menacing and majestic, their creations encapsulate Pi’s magical upbringing.

Once Pi’s family are forced to flee the instability of India and board a cargo ship bound for Canada, the initial buzz of new beginnings is soon shattered when a storm hits. Stranded on a life boat in the Pacific Ocean, Pi is accompanied by Richard Parker, the only other miraculous survivor, and a tiger. Semi-ludic flashbacks to Richard Parker talking with a French accent provide unexpected light-relief and Pi’s hallucinations of survival lessons learnt from family members forward the action. As Pi, Divesh Subaskaran is impressive, especially considering this is his professional debut.

Andrzej Goulding’s video design and Tim Lutkin’s lighting really come into play here to bring his adventure to life. His journey is part projected onto a hand-held map while a mini steam ship is moved across the stage. A lashing rain light effect, lightning flashes and general cast chaos signify Pi’s change of circumstance before contrasting instrumentals herald the start of his 227 days alone in the ocean. Although the hospital backdrop remains a constant, UV lighting and sea sounds coupled with detritus, fish and turtle puppets transport the audience to more tropical climes.

Back in the present when Pi’s interviewers question the truth of his tale, he offers an alternative take on events and asks them: “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” With the show’s impressive aesthetics and Chakrabarti’s end note, the answer is obvious. Surely, anyone dealing with trauma would also agree. Tonight’s audience respond with their feet, giving the ensemble a well-deserved standing-ovation in recognition of the skilful staging of a seemingly technically challenging tale.

Life of Pi shows at The Alhambra Friday November 6-11th before continuing its UK tour, returning to Leeds in January: