The story so far: Plucky British single mother J.K. Rowling publishes a book, ostensibly for children, about a boy wizard having adventures, and inadvertently launches a multi-billion-dollar brand that entrances children and overgrown kids worldwide. After seven weighty books, eight feature films and all manner of ancillary texts, attractions and merchandise, Rowling and her lucky corporate partners reap untold wealth.
She next conceives a new story about her most beloved characters, Harry Potter himself as well as his chums Hermione and Ron as they face their toughest challenge yet — parenting teenagers. But here’s the twist: Instead of writing a book or making a film that could be consumed by millions of people simultaneously — and make the kind of money that could run a space program or wipe out the debts of several developing nations — Rowling is persuaded by theatrical producers Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender to release the new story first as a play, that most ancient of entertainment forms. Only a maximum of 1,370 people per show will be able to experience the story every day, in the intimate setting of London’s Palace Theatre. That is, until the inevitable film adaptation comes along.
Surprisingly, it turns out that the medium of theater is a better fit for the material than film, because in a theater magic tricks really look, well, magical. No one speculates with awe these days over how filmmakers can make a boy fly on a broom, or a dementor float, or one character transform into someone else on the screen because the answer is always pretty much VFX. Yet, when this production uses a simple lighting trick to suggest a ripple in the fabric of time, or makes someone disappear in a phone box (almost literally the oldest magic trick in the book), these dusty theatrical sleights actually draw gasps and applause from the audience — perhaps not unlike the first stage audiences for Peter Pan.
The result is an entrancing theatrical event that generously serves fans and newcomers alike. While purists might grumble about the colonization of yet another stage in the West End by a property that originated in another medium, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has originality, craft and charm that will help to hook a new generation of mainstream theatergoers.
It’s a tribute to Rowling and Co.’s ability to earn fan loyalty that so few spoilers have leaked out so far. Cleverly, the producers have reinforced this allegiance through merchandising by distributing free badges at each show encouraging viewers to #keepthesecrets. Of course, major twists won’t be revealed here, but those who wish to remain completely ignorant of what happens should stop reading now.
Although the two-part show clocks in at around five hours and 15 minutes altogether (minus two 20-minute breaks in each play), watching the whole shebang is downright efficient compared to the slog of reading some of Rowling’s later, under-edited books. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to which it bears more than a passing resemblance thematically, the story picks up with a new generation, focusing on the children of Harry and Ginny (Jamie Parker and Poppy Miller), Ron and Hermione (Paul Thornley and Noma Dumezweni) and, most surprisingly, Draco Malfoy (Alex Price), who now appears entirely reformed from his days as a teen Voldemort supporter.
Tellingly, the identity of the eponymous child is not revealed until the last act, all the better to suggest that many of the characters here fit that description. Could the mysterious minor be Harry’s second son Albus Potter (Sam Clemmett), whom we first met in the epilogue of The Deathly Hallows, 19 years after the final battle of Hogwarts, worrying about which house he would get assigned to at the famous wizarding school? (The scene is repeated here word for word.) Later, he and Harry will have a fierce argument and Harry will say the words every parent fears will escape their lips — that he wishes Albus had never been born, a kind of curse in itself.
Equally, the cursed child might be Albus‘ best friend, wry nerd Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle, the show’s breakout discovery). He’s supposedly the son of Draco and Astoria Malfoy (we never meet her), although there are rumors he’s actually the son of Voldemort himself, conceived with the help of the Potterverse version of a time machine, a “time turner,” last seen in Prisoner of Azkaban.
It just so happens that a time turner will be the engine, literally, of The Cursed Child, so that the play really ends up resembling the Back to the Future franchise more than Star Wars, with a little dark dollop of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Hoping to do a kindness to Amos Diggory (Barry McCarthy), father of Cedric Diggory who died in the Tri-Wizards Tournment years ago, Albus and Scorpius use a purloined time turner to try and save Cedric, only to learn that even a slight change of the past can have massive, butterfly-effect repercussions. Although the boys often sound convincingly like 21st century British teenagers in their use of idioms, slang and intonation, they clearly have failed to keep up with muggle sci-fi conventions.
Certainly, there’s some flab and repetition in the script by playwright Jack Thorne, who wrote Hope and the stage adaptation of Let the Right One In for Cursed Child’s inspired director, John Tiffany. Thorne, Tiffany and Rowling co-wrote the story on which this show is based, and as much as you can sense Rowling’s influence, the hands of her collaborators are just as visible.
Thorne demonstrated a sure touch writing for young people with his scripts for the TV series This Is England, and that knack shows here. American audiences may know Tiffany best through his Tony-winning staging of the musical Once, and for the most recent Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, and there’s a little touch of Tennessee Williams in the fraught portrait here of families under stress, cursed by secrets and shame. Tiffany’s longtime artistic collaborator Steven Hoggett is also on board as movement director. His inspired management of blocking, choreography and general stagecraft also “writes” the show and contributes to its success as much as the efforts of Thorne, Tiffany and Rowling. Just the way staircases on wheels dance around each other — setting scenes but also evoking key motifs in the story — is one example of the seamless coordination of the show’s key creative talents, including set designer Christine Jones.
This sometimes disturbing tale of murder, guilt and fear rethinks the core values of the franchise even via the recasting of familiar characters. Racist fans were horrified in the comments sections of many a website when it was revealed that Hermione would be played by Swaziland-born actor Dumezweni. (Rowling cheekily pointed out that the books never specify that she’s Caucasian, just that she has curly brown hair.) A veteran of the London stage, recently seen in Carmen Disruption at the Almeida, Dumezweni exudes the intelligence we’ve come to expect from Hermione, as well as the sort of authority that makes it credible she’d have been appointed Minister of Magic at age 40.
Ultimately, Dumezweni doesn’t take the character in such a radically different direction from Emma Watson in the films. Parker’s Harry, on the other hand, is truly a whole new person, completely unlike Daniel Radcliffe in bearing, attitude and verbal style, and all the better for it. It’s not just that he’s convincing as a young middle-aged man and father; he brings an anger to the role that makes Harry feel much ballsier, more swaggering and complex than he’s ever been before. Similarly, Thornley’s Ron Weasley also improves on Rupert Grint’s film incarnation, though not by as wide a margin. Like Ron of old, he’s there for wisecracking and comic relief, although maturity has added a refreshing confidence — except when a time-altered version of the present finds him bereft of everyone he loves.
As the plot switchbacks between the older trio we know and Albus and Scorpius struggling to correct their mistakes, the story coils in thematically on what always made the books and films so engaging: that notion of heroic schoolkids, learning that their elders are every bit as flawed and fallible as themselves. The humanism of Rowling’s universe shines through, with its forgiving understanding that no one, not even Voldemort, is born evil, but that evil can be made from neglect, abuse and lack of love. That’s a good lesson to learn, as is the fact that no theatrical moment can’t be improved by the savvy deployment of organza and wire harnesses.
Hugely enthusiastic word of mouth and brand awareness have ensured a London run sold out until the end of time. Or, at least, until May 27 next year when the plays are scheduled to close, although the run will almost certainly will be extended, with a Broadway transfer sure to follow.
Venue: Palace Theatre, London
Cast: Sam Clemmett, Anthony Boyle, Jamie Parker, Poppy Miller, Noma Dumezweni, Paul Thornley, Alex Price, Esther Smith, Jeremy Ang Jones, Annabel Baldwin, Paul Bentall, Claudia Grant, Chris Jarman, James Le Lacheur, Helena Lymbery, Barry McCarthy, Sandy McDade, Adam McNamara, Tom Milligan, Jack North, Nuno Silva, Cherrelle Skeete, Alfred Jones, Ewan Rutherford, Nathaniel Smith, Dylan Standen, Zoe Brough, Cristina Fray, Christiana Hutchings
Playwright: Jack Thorne, based on an original new story by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany
Director: John Tiffany
Movement: Steven Hoggett
Set designer: Christine Jones
Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music and arrangements: Imogen Heap
Sound designer: Gareth Fry
Music supervisor and arrangerments Martin Lowe
Presented by Sonia Friedman, Colin Callender, Harry Potter Theatrical Productions
This review was corrected. An earlier version said a film of the play was already announced, when in fact only the film rights were sold.