I confess that I'm not a Harry Potter fan – or a Potterhead, as they’re called. I quite enjoyed the first book but gave up on the films after only two. So, like a student about to take an exam he’s ill-prepared for, I arrived at Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in trepidation that my lack of background knowledge would make it impossible for me to know who was doing what to whom, or why. At the same time I reckoned that being a mere muggle would allow me, in a totally unbiased fashion, to judge whether what I was about to see would work its magic on its own terms – or not.
I’m happy to report that it does, and that the “event” (it’s more than just a play) that Jack Thorne has fashioned from an idea he evolved with J.K. Rowling and the show’s director John Tiffany is an achievement in its own right, completely independent of the film franchise and the seven Potter books that preceded it.
Of course, had I been more au fait with the novels in general and, I’m told, The Goblet of Fire in particular, I’d have been able, like the majority of the audience, to identify several of the minor characters and place them in their proper context as well as get the references that went straight over my head. In the end, though, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” of the complex plot was less important than the theatrical magic – both literally and figuratively – that Tiffany evokes over two plays and five and a half hours running time.
What I did know before I took my seat at the Palace Theatre was that Part One began where the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Harrows, left off. Nineteen years have passed. Harry is now a man of 37. He has a desk job at the Ministry of Magic, and he and his childhood sweeheart Ginny have three children – James, Lily and Albus.
Ron Weasley, Harry’s closest friend, is the owner of a joke shop, and his wife Hermione, who has become the Minister of Magic, has a daughter called Rose. We meet them all at King’s Cross Station, where Albus and Rose are about to depart for their first term at Hogwarts.
Albus, it soon becomes clear, isn’t at all like his old man. He’s not the most popular kid on the block, suffers from famous-father syndrome and longs for adventures of his own. His only friend, whom he meets at Hogwarts, is a blond geek called Scorpius Malfoy, whose father Draco and Harry Potter were once sworn enemies.
As reviewers and audiences alike have been asked to “keep the secrets” in this latest Potter incarnation, I’ll confine the details of the plot to its bare bones and just tell you that the gist of the narrative revolves around Albus’ attempts to put right a wrong committed by his father, in which handsome Cedric Diggory was killed in the Triwizard Tournament. In order to do this, Albus, Scorpius and an accomplice called Delphi, using an illicit Time-Turner machine filched from Hermione’s office, embark on three history-altering journeys in time, all of which end in disaster.
The plot is fun and will keep the younger members of the audience suitably gripped. For older punters like myself, what makes these two long outings resonate has less to do with time travel than the dark consequences that lie therein. (Could Scorpius, you’re made to wonder, be the son of the evil Valdemort?)
Add to this a fraught father-son relationship between a guilt-ridden Harry, who at one point expresses the wish that Albus wasn’t his son, and Albus’ understandable need to justify himself in order to become his own person, and you have a real adult dynamic at work. Friendship and loyalty are also seriously explored, especially in the bromance (and its hint of something more) between Albus and Scorpius. Even the subject of child-abuse in Harry’s early years is raised in a flashback.
The undoubted triumph of this epic adventure is its visual concept. Whereas on film the magical world of Harry Potter was created by CGI, in this stage version the illusions you see actually happen in front of you. There’s flying and levitation with, as far as I could make out, no strings attached. Steam hisses out of a character’s ears. A mask of green flame hovers across the stage. A centaur appears. Children turn into adults in front of your eyes. Chilling ghost-like Dementors waft menacingly across the auditorium. Water submerges the stage. In a split second ordinary clothes change into a school uniform. Library books fly.
The only back projection would appear to be the rippling effect on Hogwarts’s Victorian arches when young Albus and Scorpius embark on their time-travels. Suitcases are a recurring prop throughout, and a pair of movable staircases proves vital to the story-telling process. Take a bow James Harrison for the magic illusions, Christine Jones for the dark and brooding set designs, Katrtina Lindsay for her imaginative costumes, Steven Hoggett, the movement director, and Tiffany for keeping the momentum going. And if ever a hard-working backstage crew deserved a curtain call of their very own, this is it.
Though there are no stars in a cast of more than 40, the standout performances are Jamie Parker’s fraught Harry, Noma Dumazweni’s authoritative Hermione, Sam Clemmett’s troubled Albus, Annabell Balding’s scene-stealing Moaning Myrtle, Paul Thornley’s likable Ron Weasley, Esther Smith’s duplicitous Delphi Diggory, and best of all (in the best role of all) Anthony Boyle’s multi-faceted Scorpius. It’s a wonderful, award-winning turn.
The five and a half hours aren’t free of longueurs, there’s far too much exposition, and several characters remain marginalised and under-developed. So what?
The real achievement of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is that its creative triumvirate have successfully managed to make flesh J.K. Rowling’s particular realm of wizardry and take us on a magical mystery tour through time in which everyday concerns such as family, friendship, love and loyalty comfortably co-exist in a world in which it is also possible to explore alternate destinies – not all of them for the better.