BWW Review: HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD, Palace Theatre
During the recent Ghostbusters furore, enraged opponents claimed the movie would ruin their childhood. As someone who grew up with the Harry Potter book series - preparing for GCSEs while the characters stressed over O.W.L.s - I can happily declare that this affectionate, spellbinding work only enhances that treasured experience. It's both nostalgic and thrillingly new, a smartly crafted love letter to J.K. Rowling's invention and to theatre itself.
The plays (very much two halves of one whole) begin 19 years after the climactic events of Deathly Hallows. Harry Potter is now 37 and ushering son Albus off to his first term at Hogwarts. Joining Albus is Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley's daughter Rose, and Draco Malfoy's son Scorpius - though the latter's parentage is the subject of sinister rumours.
Meanwhile, orphaned Harry feels rudderless handling fatherhood without a model, and is also dealing with residual trauma, grief and survivor's guilt. Albus, in a nice bit of metatheatricality, is struggling to escape the shadow of his famous dad and feeling the pressure to live up to Harry's time at Hogwarts - plus that whole saving the world thing.
Scripting wizardry allows characters to delve into history and gets the band back together, offering tantalising insight into familiar events and a sprinkling of geekgasmic fan service - it's Back to the Future meets Choose Your Own Adventure, with a nod to chaos theory, prophecy versus free will, and a chilling dystopian alternative reality. "Previously on..." catch-ups aid the uninitiated, though diehard Potterheads will most appreciate the school reunion framing and numerous in-jokes.
The story, developed by Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, is a series of carefully balanced dualities: children and adults, past and future, new and old, good and evil. We glimpse Harry and Hermione's work at the Ministry of Magic as well as the Hogwarts students' adventures, while references, cameos and a fluid chronology honour beloved book characters alongside fresh faces.
It adds up to a jam-packed five-plus hours - the two-part structure is necessary for a tale that could probably stretch to seven plays. Breathless narrative means some of the exposition and life lessons land rather heavily, but there are beautiful moments of personal connection and freewheeling tangents that allow Thorne to winningly capture Rowling's wry wit and quirky, detailed world-building.
Besides, this is event theatre. Entering the Palace, where the cathedral-like monumental arches of King's Cross are illuminated by a beatific shaft of light, fans automatically speak in hushed voices - disciples come to worship at the altar of storytelling. And thank Dumbledore, Tiffany's astonishing production repays that investment, easily showing up the glossy, sanitised VFX films by offering something more melancholy, more visceral and more, well, magical.
The live sleight-of-hand trickery provokes a genuine sense of wonder; I've never heard (or participated in) so much oohing and ahhing. People are swallowed up by phone boxes or transform after a gulp of polyjuice, broomsticks levitate, cluttered desks are miraculously tidied, and - appropriately enough - books take on a life of their own. Ethereal moments linger in the memory, like the dancing staircases or pinprick lights of wands amidst the gloom.
All while steering well clear of panto, with just one villainous reveal verging on camp. Credit to a tightly drilled ensemble and the creative dream team of Christine Jones (set design), Neil Austin (lighting design), Jamie Harrison (illusions), Jeremy Chernick (special effects), Gareth Fry (sound design), Finn Ross (projections) and Katrina Lindsay (costume design).
Steven Hoggett's otherworldly movement maintains the atmosphere during balletic spell-casting and transitions characterised by swirling cloaks, while Imogen Heap's music is evocative but less syrupy than the movie scoring. In simple but effective stagecraft, suitcases - emblematic of this great journey - form gravestones and speeding trains: the extraordinary conjured from the ordinary.
How many future theatregoers, and theatre-makers, will this show inspire? Thousands of first-timers are already pouring into the Palace. Rowling and her team have given the industry an incomparable gift, just as the author did for literature.
Yet Tiffany and Thorne understand that the core appeal of Harry Potter is not its enchantments, but its humanity. The drama centres on familial fracture, given real heft by Jamie Parker. His troubled Harry is achingly imperfect - still boyishly charming and with a hero's tendency towards rash action, but exhausted from dealing with childhood scars (not just the lightning-shaped one) reopened by parenting. The next instalment may have to be Harry Potter and the Therapist's Couch.
Sam Clemmett's misfit Albus is a convincing angsty adolescent, though could use more variation, while Anthony Boyle is the breakout star, giving superb specificity to the awkward, open-hearted Scorpius, who voices reasonable doubts about every alarming plan.
Noma Dumezweni responds to the vile backlash about her casting with majestic certainty. This is the adult Hermione - dazzlingly intelligent, but with a twinkle in her eye even at her most authoritative. Paul Thornley's Ron is a kindly goofball, Alex Price brings fascinating layers to Draco, Chris Jarman is a sonorous sorting hat, and there are strong performances from the underused Poppy Miller (Ginny) and Cherrelle Skeete (Rose).
Given that this will be a formative experience for a whole generation - and doubtless several more to come - it is disappointing that the female characters are comparatively short-changed. The key relationships here are father/son and intense bromance (the latter hinting at but ducking the chance to introduce a central canon gay romance).
But Rowling's empathetic worldview is otherwise honoured by a piece that explores the search for identity, various parenting styles, work/life balance, the complexity of sacrifice, bearing witness to tragedy, and the need for community - family and friendship - in the face of wickedness.
Though even the wrong'uns here are just people damaged by loss or isolation, yearning for understanding. The future is ours to make, the play argues, and we can and must join together to create a kinder, better society. What a resonant message, and - in what may well be a difficult time for the arts - what a crucial argument this work makes for the transformative power of theatre and the everyday wonder that is love, compassion and boundless feats of imagination.
The Special Rehearsal Edition of the script book of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will be published on 31 July 2016, in print by Little, Brown (UK), Scholastic (US) and as an eBook by Pottermore
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan