Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - a Potterhead Review
By now Harry Potter fans all over the world have had the opportunity to devour J.K Rowling and Jack Thorne's latest addition to the Potter franchise as the rehearsal play script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Part One and Two has been published. After six weeks of previews at the Palace Theatre in London's West End, the production opened to press reviews last week, that saw an overwhelmingly positive response to the play, the staging and performances and the story itself. The debate over how much of the plot could be formally discussed in reviews has raged for the past week, with some fans looking for more in-depth analysis of the production and story, with others asking for respectful silence from critics to #KeepTheSecrets as not to spoil a future theatregoing experience. For those wanting to remain completely in the dark, I advise reading no further as this review contains some mild spoilers that some readers may find upsetting.
This week (Thursday 4 August) a new batch of tickets will go on sale to the show, which is now booking to December 2017 – one of the longest advances currently in the West End. Tickets for both parts, which are designed to be seen on either consecutive evenings or one full day, are proving to be London's hottest tickets, and following the reviews, demand for the new batch will certainly be overwhelming.
As a self-confessed Potterhead I was initially sceptical at the prospects of a new Harry Potter story. Having grown up alongside the release of the novels I, like many of my age, felt that the series had ended appropriately and had made my peace with the fact that Rowling had done so in such a complete fashion. Whilst she shut the door on Harry and his world Rowling also left a small window open for re-entry at a later, and sadly inevitable point. As Hollywood continues to develop the world in a lateral direction, with the upcoming release of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" later this year, Harry Potter and his world is far from being left untouched, although at the Gala Opening performance last weekend Rowling did confirm that she thinks she's "done" with Harry following The Cursed Child.
Whilst I wasn't initially thrilled that the narrative was going to be continued I was however delighted that Rowling chose to use theatre as a medium for further exploration, and I can confidentially say that the production is a remarkable achievement for everyone involved. With the publication of the script last week, hundreds of thousands of people have since read their very first play, perhaps even spoken the words aloud and acted out sections with their friends and family. Amongst the hype regarding the release of the new story, theatre is at the forefront of this media attention, and that's a fact that fans of the form should be delighted with.
In writing a review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child I want to find a line between saving the many secrets within the play and also providing a critical analysis from the point of view of a Potterhead. Part of the delight of reading review coverage over the past week has been the wide variety and scope with which the play has been discussed – some critics coming to the play as a completely fresh and original piece of theatre, having no affinity to the characters or back story, and others have reviewed it as either a casual or super-fan of the original text.
I firmly believe that the secrets should be saved, and would go so far as to suggest that Potter fans will get the most out of the experience if they do not read the script before seeing the production. Now I'm as impatient as the next fan when it comes to spoilers and frequently have to stop myself ruining experiences especially when the information is a slight Google search away, but having seen the production before reading the text, I can firmly say that it's the best way to experience it.
I lost count of the audible gaps that rang out around the auditorium throughout both parts of the play, as plot and character points we revealed, some in fairly casual ways that weren't significant parts of the narrative. Rowling has served her fans well by including multiple plot elements that are revealed throughout, forcing a new perspective on the already existent time-line of events, from the Triwizard Tournament in book four to the very start of the story where Hagrid first visits Harry with the Dursleys. Character names are dropped and referenced throughout the play, leading to moments of delight for fans, but are not too exclusive for those who don't know their Durmstrang from their Dolores.
Fundamentally Rowling and Thorne have created a play where time is the central focus and narrative drive. The set itself, which feels like a beautiful expansion of St Pancras' Victorian arches and the inner belly of King's Cross Station allows a multi-functional playing space complete with revolve that allows the action to remain in constant motion as clocks and travel become a huge feature within the sceneography, whirring at the side of the stage and dominating the back wall throughout. Steven Hoggett's movement fits perfectly with this theme and motif, using luggage carts and suitcases to carefully form expressionistic settings for the drama that ranges from scenes in the Ministry of Magic to Godric's Hollow and of course, Hogwarts.
By using time and time travel in particular, Rowling is afforded the opportunity to not only revisit much loved characters of the past but also scenes and situations with which the audience are already accustomed to. Using a fresh perspective, the play manages to feel familiar as well as surprising, and seeing scenes through someone else's eyes we are reminded of Rowling's genius at perfectly unfolding a narrative, dropping clues and breadcrumbs along the way to help draw various strands neatly together.
At times it can provide a tricky concept to juggle, and so some signposting is necessary in Throne's script. As the action takes place in multiple dimension across the past, present and future, attention must be paid throughout in order to keep on top of the narrative shifts that can throw up numerous questions about the wider magical world, especially for younger viewers.
At its heart the play is an adventure story, much like each of the individual books and Rowling excels in her character development and ability to craft meaningful and interesting relationships. As Harry himself may lead the title of the play, much of the action is surrendered to his second son Albus Severus, around whom the plot revolves. Joining Hogwarts brings about the usual anxieties over the Sorting Hat and learning to fly, but for Albus he is forced to contend with his father's legacy, upholding the family name whilst managing to forge his own path. Forming a close friendship with Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Harry's nemesis Draco, makes for an arresting central relationship from which the plot can be explored as the pair seek solace in each other's sadness and are drawn together by their mutual frustrations.
To say much more about the plot risks inviting too many spoilers, but I can say with great certainty that Potter fans such as myself, and indeed those throughout the auditorium, were delighted with the direction and nature of the story in both its narrative scope and ability to feel both fresh and relevant to the franchise as a whole. Having already created one of the most fearsome villains in literary history, Rowling finds herself somewhat trapped to create a suitable enough threat to the magical existence, as having defeated the Dark Lord at the Battle of Hogwarts the stakes surely couldn't be raised much higher, and this becomes the play's only drawback.
The production itself is practically faultless in its delivery, from the detail front of house that changes between the parts (make sure you keep your eyes peeled!) to the set pieces, costumes and special effects. Perfectly housed in the Gothic surrounds of the Palace Theatre, the production feels so at home within the venue that it already feels bedded in as a long-running future tenant. It manages to feel both intimate and expansive, and a walk around the auditorium confirms that even at the heights of the balcony much care has been afforded to make sure that audiences at all levels will get the best out of the experience. Despite having one of London's steepest and largest Balcony sections the set has been designed to allow maximum views from even the very top of the theatre, with effects that manage to carry right to the final row.
Christine Jones's spectacular set is beautiful lit by Neil Austin and matched with exceptional sound design by Gareth Fry. Actors are amplified, unusual for a play, but sensitively used as to feel as natural as possible. Much of the action is underlined with a powerful and pulsating soundtrack by Imogen Heap which, unlike the films, doesn't feel quintessentially classical. Instead it's modern, arresting and perfectly suited to the growing drama.
One of the most anticipated aspects of the production was always going to be the realisation of the special effects. Set exclusively in the magical world everything from daily tasks to fighting enemies plays out via magic, and so it was vital that audiences could experience that aspect first hand. One of the most refreshing aspects of the staging is it's simplicity and subtlety, and once again this area feels finely crafted and never over the top. Polyjuice Potion, transfiguration and duels are all met with theatrical ingenuity, leaving audience members gasping at their delivery, as traditional theatre tricks and illusions are used with great effect. Whilst these come thick and fast throughout the first half of the first play as audiences find their expectations more than suitably matched, the second play allows the story to develop, with a number of effects saved for a dramatic finale.
That said, one of the most moving and effective moments of the entire play for me was a section that didn't rely on any smoke and mirrors. During the first part where Harry bans his son from speaking to Scorpius, Hoggett and Tiffany create a silent sequence to show the pair's separation through the use of moving staircases. Manipulated by cast members, the half stairs glide across the stage in a highly choreographed ballet that shows the missed connections between the two, emphasising their loneliness within Hogwarts which has previously always been painted as an overly welcoming and happy environment. Both artistic and expressive the section is finely executed and reveals the very heart of the play and lifts Rowling's narrative onto the stage without saying a word.
There is no doubt that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a theatrical phenomenon and will enjoy an extremely healthy London run. With Harry Potter fans from all over the world flocking to the city to try and grab a golden ticket, it's certainly expected that the Palace Theatre will remain occupied for quite a number of years. Producers are said to be in talks about mounting a second production on Broadway in the 2017/18 season, but for now we can enjoy the fact that the spotlight is on the West End, and London currently has a show that the entire world is envious of and desperate to see, which makes this Potterhead incredibly happy.
250,000 new tickets for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child go on sale on Thursday 4 August 2016. The production is booking to December 2017.