Lolita Chakrabarti’s puppet-powered adaption of Yann Martel’s much-loved Booker Prize winning novel THE LIFE OF PI opened in Sheffield’s Crucible theatre in 2019 to a rapturous reception, but its West End transfer was severely delayed due to the pandemic. It was worth the wait. When the breathtaking production, directed by Max Webster, finally opened at Wyndham’s Theatre last November, it was an instant smash hit, ‘A Theatrical Phenomenon’ (The Telegraph), winning five Olivier Awards at last weekend’s Royal Albert Hall ceremony, including Best New Play.
“It is one of the most visually stunning theatre shows I have ever seen,” wrote Andrzej Lukowski in his TimeOut review. “Long after the curtain falls LIFE OF PI will make you believe in the power of theatre,” said The Times.
A father’s decision to relocate his ramshackled family zoo in the South Indian coastal town of Pondicherry to Canada begins an epic 227-day journey of hope and endurance. After the cargo ship sinks in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean there are five survivors on a lifeboat; a hyena, a zebra, an orangutang, a Royal Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker and the extraordinary story’s protagonist and zookeeper’s son, sixteen-year-old Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel (named after a swimming pool in Paris), played by a very youthful and ebullient 35 year-old RADA graduate Hiran Abeysekera, deservedly winning the Olivier for Best Actor.
During the delay and lockdowns, Hiran recalled thinking, “like many creative people, he questioned the importance of his job, compared to nurses and other frontline workers, but then people kept taking about all the things that they were watching on their laptops and how TV and entertainment were a huge part of people’s mental health.” It reassured him.
Hiran’s personal theatrical journey began after his memorable portrayal of Alan Strang in the 2007 British Council’s Sri Lankan production of Peter Shaffer’s EQUUS in his hometown of Columbo, which caught the attention of theatre director Willi Richards, who flew him to the UK to audition for various drama schools, winning a scholarship at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And so the 23 year-old began a new life in London.
Sri Lankan Sunday Times journalist interviewed Hiran in 2008. He wrote, “Some people make an instant impression on you. Some others leave you hoping you would meet them again. This young man falls into both categories.” I certainly agree, meeting Hiran at the stage door prior to a Sunday matinee last month, where he kindly signed my sketch.