Palace Theatre, London
So what did I really think about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? You need to know two things – first that I went to a press night because the reviewer assigned to it got a hospital appointment the same day and secondly I only read the books originally until my godson grew too big to stay on my knee, since when I’ve maybe seen two of the films.
I am not, therefore, a fan except in the sense that I studied Novels of Childhood at University and subsequently kicked myself that I hadn’t had the idea to stitch them all together using everything from William, Bunter, Jennings and Darbyshire, The Wizard of Oz, Swallows and Amazons and the entire Tolkein canon to produce the money-spinner that now makes J K Rowling richer than the Queen.
Let’s just dwell for a second on the three hundred and sixty degree scope of this success. Not only is she the nation’s best-selling living author translated into 73 languages, Deathly Hallows was the world’s fastest selling book with 8.3 million copies in its first day, all eight movies scored in the top three worldwide for the years of their release – not even the Bond films did that – and now she seems set to kick every other West End butt with the fastest-selling-out stage play too.
Her tutor at Exeter Uni said she was the sort of student who did the bare minimum to get by, but that couldn’t possibly scuff the shine of her inventive brilliance and ability to tell a tale in ways both children and adults can devour.
Although never a short story, I doubt she knows the meaning of the form.
Rolling in at a ‘mere’ 5 hours 20 plus the obligatory standing ovation, allowing for the meal break Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is actually a lengthier day out than the Oberammergau Passion Play, and that was an act of faith for deliverance from the Black Death.
So what’s it about?
SPOILER ALERT – PLOT POINTS REVEALED
Publishing the script on July 30 possibly diminishes the imperative to ‘Keep The Secrets’ since they’ve presumably been all over the tinterweb since the morning of the 31 st. But here goes:
In his first term at school Harry Potter’s anxiety-ridden son Albus befriends Scorpius Malfoy and together they travel back in time to right the ‘wrong’ that someone called Cedric Diggory – played by R-Pats in the film – died in the Triwizard Tournament. The usual anxiety of time travellers that they will ‘upset’ the course of history are rife, and they actually fuck it up since when they return to the present not only are their parents not married to each other, the forces of good lost the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry is dead and Voldemort rules the world, with Draco Malfoy as Minister of Magic and Dolores Umbrage head of Hogwarts. Which is now an Academy.
I made the last bit up, but it wouldn’t stretch credulity too far once you swallow the rest of it.
If Rowling mined Back to the Future for part 1, at the top of part 2 she’s clearly revisiting Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as black-clad fascist functionaries bestride the magical universe and a bad witch – we know she’s bad because she has a tattoo – called Delphi Diggory makes a lot of trouble. The boys find a way to un-pick the mistake they have made which involves returning to the time and place of Harry’s own birth. In this they are followed by Hermione, Harry, Ginny, Draco and Ron who apart from Professor McGonagall appear to be the only fully articulate adults in the world, the wrongs are righted and even Professor Snape who had been brought back to life by the first bungled time travelling seems pretty darn content with carking it afresh in the worthy cause of Potterdom.
How have the characters grown? In Harry’s case it’s a reverse progression – from teenage hero and saviour of the world, he seems to have morphed into Adrian Mole with a pen-pushing job in the Ministry of Magic at which he isn’t much better than he is at being a dad, which is to say – failing.
There were some negative online remarks about her casting but Noma Dumezweni’s problem isn’t her ethnicity but that her Hermione is nothing like the girl we all knew at school. She has authority as Minister of Magic, but it’s an entirely different authority from the way Emma Watson’s Muggle-born Hermione worked her way out of problems and dangerous situations with encyclopaedic bookishness and superior skill at spells. Rowling seems to have written a completely different woman.
Not only is Paul Thornley far and away the best of the adult actors, his Ron Weasley shows the most logical progression from the childhood canon and you can see how Rupert Grint’s geeky ginger teen morphed in to the joke-shop owning try-hard dad. He’s also the only adult with any real sexual fire, coming on to wife Hermione with far more warmth and passion than Harry offers Ginny.
The cleverness in the casting is that whilst all the adult leads are talented and Jamie Parker is an outstanding and versatile actor, none is indispensible: there’s nothing he says or does that couldn’t be accomplished by an alternate and they don’t have the sort of crazed fan-following that means endless moaning in chat rooms if Parker or Dumezweni is on holiday. Or, assuming initial contracts are for a year, when someone completely different plays Harry or Hermione in the next booking period. Even a different History Boy. I bet Russell Tovey wants a crack at it if only as an alternative to posting daily gym-based selfies on Facebook.
There are wires strung across the auditorium and as day turns to evening your mind may drift towards how some of the magic is accomplished. When you can spot the methods you are still impressed how slickly they are done, and why this show needed seven weeks of preview to polish the tricks to such a high shine: the trapdoors and stage engineering are the most seamless I can recall and even if the ‘pulled through a flap’ technique recalls Jacqueline doing Sticky Vicky’s act in Benidorm, it’s still clever. It’s only when something slips, like a bedcover the night I went, that you can see the joins.
Sound and lighting design will win every award going – and completely darkening the theatre for the chilling moments of Dementors or Death Eaters is as effective as you can get without the resources of film, and I liked the music by Isobel Hardman, and the occasional – very occasional – wry jokes like when Malfoy senior surveys the gentrified village of Godric’s Hollow and asks ‘is that a farmers’ market?’.
Among the younger actors, Sam Clemmett is good enough as Albus, but Anthony Boyle as Scorpius is man of the match, a gawky teen with the voice and manners of Mr Bean. From breaking voice to occasionally breaking the fourth wall with a sly aside to the audience, his is undoubtedly the outstanding performance and a breakthrough role to future leading parts.
Is it worth it? Top tickets are £130 for both parts, not bad by West End standards although I do think this story could have been contained in one two-and-a-half-hour show plus an interval, and whilst I sat through all of it in a day, if I’d been there for part 1 on a Thursday evening I might have questioned whether coming back for part 2 on a Friday was worth the effort.
It is very good. But if you have to wait till late 2017 to see it, you are missing nothing that won’t be AS good then.
And who knows what the casting may be? After the Funny Girl fiasco I’m pretty sure producer Sonia Friedman would like to cast Sheridan Smith as a witch.
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