Palace Theatre, London
JUST WHAT WE WAND-ED?
It’s not only Henry IV who gets two plays. Cry God for Harry, Hogwarts and St Joanne: the woman who (whether you love the tales or not) admirably got a telly-softened generation hooked on big, fat, complicated books with Latin words and old-fashioned moral values. Moreover, the two plays (in collaboration with Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany) not only take the story of the orphaned boy magician into a new genre after those increasingly tedious quidditch-CGI action movies, but enterprisingly nudge the narrative on a generation. We must be very, very careful of spoilers – everyone is issued a Keep the Secrets badge, and remarkably, the long previews have seen little leakage. But a few things may be told, and reflected on.
For Harry – Jamie Parker – is now grown up, married to Ginny Weasley (a disappointingly bland part in the main for Poppy Miller) and has children. He is seeing Albus, the awkward middle-child, off to Hogwarts, where the lad risks possible disappointment under the Sorting Hat (it’s a bowler, this time), may not even be as keen on Quidditch as his very famous Dad, and will have to make new friends. Sam Clemmett is nicely teenage at Albus, but his new surprise best friend – played by Anthony Boyle – frankly steals the show. Both the shows, actually. See how carefully I’m not even naming the part he plays: but let it be said that Boyle is a delight. Fresh to the West End, he’s funny and credible, awkward and brave and dry in his comic timing and wholly unexpected. The two of them are a sort of Hogwarts Jennings and Darbishire, not least in their ability to do dangerously awful things while meaning touchingly well…
That’s what they do. And Harry meanwhile is not terribly good at being a parent – what with having grown up being emotionally abused in a stair-cupboard – so that is another emotional engine of the plot. Around him are familiar figures: the adult Draco Malfon, Nazi-blond with a menacing ponytail, is Alex Price; the marvellous, solid, decent but edgily mischievous Noma Dumezweni is Hermione, now Minister of Magic and married to the still-quite-annoying larky Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley, nails it). Sandy McDade is a splendid, and not-yet-retired Professor MacGonagall, and doubles as – well, another person entirely. There’s a turn from another West End debutant, Annabel Baldwin in the “roles include” ensemble. And she too will not easily be forgotten: anyone else thinking of casting a faintly nymphomaniacal ghost who lives in drainpipes, you may have to wait a while as this will run forever, but she’s your girl .
That’s enough about actors. The staging is, of course, brilliant: there are illusions which, though Victorian and traditional, are so well done and with so little high-tech trickery that you gasp: but cleverer still is the way that Tiffany rations them to casual use early on, so that you genuinely get an impression that this is a world where magic tricks are as normal as cleaning your teeth. So when big magic is needed – remarkable prop work with books, shelves, trains, lakes or the whole set seeming to half-melt – we are ready to believe. There is also a rather splendid dominatrix in Part 2 to pep up the flagging Dads in the audience, and at one point a hilarious interlude in an OAP dayroom where the old bastards hex one another to pass the time. As you would.
The two plays both have to be seen to get the whole story: indeed the end of part I could send a sensitive child ,unbooked for the next, over quite an emotional cliff. Even without that flock of extremely effective Dementors moving in. And up. And over. But this double-barrelled demand of ticketbuyers is something I have a slight quarrel with: actually, the whole story could be one barnstorming 3 hrs 30 more effectively – and cheaply for punters – than the present 2 x 2hr 40 format. Because there are longeurs, occasional but regrettable, mainly due to the intricate back-story related plotting (bone up on the Tri-wizard tournament, do!) and the very Rowling-esque flatfooted spelling out and repeating of moral lessons (be brave, be loyal, listen to your children).
But never mind. It’s philosophically menacing, with a barnstorming ending and of course a happy one: it even takes us back into a sort of Harry Potter creation-myth deep in the past, involving a vaulted church and a lot of flames. Think Gotterdammerung for millennials. And for those of us who are older and more careworn, it is piquant to see Harry snowed under with paperwork he hates, and Hermione presiding over Ministry of Magic meetings as disorderly as a Labour Party NEC (“Those of you with the Dark Mark, think carefully..” etc). Not to mention the fact that the whole magical world is in crisis because “trolls are travelling towards us across Europe and werewolves have gone undercover”. How true, how very true…perhaps a Muggle electorate rashly voted Hexit…
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