ON paper, it looks like a story that couldn’t be told on stage.Yann Martel’s best-selling novel Life of Pi is about five shipwreck survivors - a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, a 16-year-old boy and a Royal Bengal tiger - stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean.

The book, which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, is a “breathtaking journey of endurance and hope”. Could such an epic, set in the middle of the ocean, work on stage? With dazzling stage techniques and an elite team of puppeteers, Life of Pi has been adapted into a stunning production, winner of five Olivier Awards and the first Broadway play with a majority South Asian cast/creative team to win three Tony Awards.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The stunning show is coming to the AlhambraThe stunning show is coming to the Alhambra (Image: Johan Persson)

Next week the show, featuring a life-size Bengal Tiger puppet, is at Bradford’s Alhambra theatre.

After a cargo ship sinks, Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel is lost at sea for 227 days with only zoo animals for company. Time is against them, nature is harsh. Who will survive? Life of Pi has been described as “the story of life”. It’s a story of family, hope, survival, love and faith.

In 2022 the production achieved an historic first for the Oliviers - the seven performers who puppeteer the Tiger, called Richard Parker, were collectively awarded Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

Romina Hytten and Akash Heer are two of the puppeteer team bringing the 450lb Royal Bengal tiger to life. To operate the enormous creature takes seven puppeteers, at the peak of physical fitness.

Romina, who operates the tiger’s heart and hind, learned puppetry at Chichester Festival Youth Theatre aged16, “although I had my first puppet when I was 11 - and that was a tiger.”

Akash, who operates the tiger’s head, says: “I’m an actor and auditioned for some of the characters in Life of Pi. They invited me back for a puppetry audition. To see the passion they all had for this production made it exciting.”

Romina and Akash says learning puppetry skills is similar to playing a musical instrument. “It’s incredibly technical when you first pick up a puppet,” says Romina. “You have to learn to move in specific ways. This show is very physical and you train your body to cope. You learn to be the tiger. You get to a point when you know your teammates so well you can read their minds. You can improvise on stage, that’s when the tiger comes to life.”

Adds Akash: “They’ve given us the structure, but they’re open for us to explore. I think about what my tiger would be like if they were human. I even have a Spotify playlist for my tiger.”

Teamwork is vital, says Romina: “Each puppeteer brings a different energy and you have to tune in with them. I did the show for 15 months in London and we were still finding new things in the last week. We keep learning from each other. We have a rotating system because it would be too physically demanding to play the tiger every night, so we get to watch each other. When you’re in the puppet you can’t tell if what you’re doing looks good so you have to rely on your teammates to tell you. It’s very collaborative and a lovely way to work.”

Says Akash: “It’s three different bodies but you sync and connect with breath. When the breath beats through to the hart and the hind only then do I feel truly connected. You feel you’ve connected to two other souls and you’re in charge of this beast. You walk forward, pause, react, attack and when everything syncs up it’s exhilarating.”

Each puppeteer brings their own personalities to Richard Parker. Says Romina: “There are little tricks we’ve come up with; if you step off the bed in a particular way it becomes known as the ‘Romina move’ or whoever the puppeteer is. We’re acting Richard Parker, so bring our own emotions to each scene. As the heart, I might react differently from one of the other puppeteers in that moment. There are individual energies.”

Akash adds: “Each team has a different tiger. We have the same scenes, intentions and objectives, but each tiger is different. I’m a tiger that’s more dominant, more ferocious. You’ll have another tiger that’s more cautious.”

Is it hard to be in full view yet not be seen? “Yes,” says Romina. “There is a set of puppetry principles that allows us to disappear. When you’re playing a tiger, you’re very fierce and you’re making big tiger roars. I don’t put the energy into my body or my face, but into the puppet.”

Akash says: “I’m a 6ft guy, when I’m on stage you see me. The puppet is the dominant figure and the three puppeteers are part of it. When you surrender to the puppet, it can take over your emotions. It makes me feel strong, grounded and emotional - I feel like a tiger.”

Divesh Subaskaran, who plays Pi, says: “The puppeteers do an amazing job. They do these intense animal studies, a lot of the sounds you hear on stage are coming from them.

“At the beginning it was difficult to know what that relationship was going to be like, but the more you go through the movement patterns, the more you understand...and if I take a step closer, this ‘killing machine’ will eat me alive. It’s about maintaining that level of tension between myself and the animal.

“The tiger has been built to look like the real thing and it has a mind of its own. The puppeteers dictate where it goes and it’s not the same every time. We’re playing this game - one night the tiger might actually kill me!”

* Life of Pi is at the Alhambra from November 6-11. Call (01274) 432000 or visit bradford-theatres.co.uk