Theatre

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child succeeds in furthering J. K. Rowling’s remarkable canon, with a greater dramatic thrust than the films but all the heart of the books that seduced young and old alike.

By Peter Craven.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Sean Rees-Wemyss and William McKenna in ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’.
Credit: Matt Murphy

Harry Potter is one of the more remarkable phenomena in the history of publishing, then by extension into film and, now, into theatre. J. K. Rowling’s genius of combining the traditional boarding school story with wizarding and witchery – black and white locked in war but with all kinds of ambivalent shades of grey – was just the beginning of it. The adult characters – Dumbledore the headmaster, his deputy Professor McGonagall, the sinister Snape – were in very clever counterpoint to the kids and their intrepid adventures and this heightened the panoramic family entertainment aspect and also led to the luxury veteran casting of the films (Richard Harris and Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane). It was all such an incarnation of the capacity to enchant and always had something both ancient and modern about it.

Now we have a stage show, an all-dayer, or two-nighter, comparable in length to Benedict Andrews’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s The War of the Roses with Cate Blanchett in 2009, but rather more of a crowd-pleaser and with a steadier sense of theatre as spectacular entertainment. And Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which sprang onto the West End stage in the middle of 2016, is as utterly dynamic an attempt to transfigure this bit of literary real estate as anything in the strange rags-to-riches story of the woman in the council flat who became richer than the Queen of England while continuing to commit to her socialist principles.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is produced by Colin Callender, who taught HBO the tricks of longform BBC television, and Sonia Friedman, who has made the West End her dominion without the fallback of owning her own theatre. The story has been worked on not just by Rowling but by playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, whose Black Watch for the National Theatre of Scotland moved audiences in Perth back in 2008.

This extension of the Harry Potter franchise will wow audiences in ways they scarcely expect. It has, for a start, a much greater dramatic thrust – one suspects for audiences both young and doddery – than the films, which necessarily anthologise and streamline material that would more naturally transpire over hundreds of pages.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a massive and deliberate attempt to give the stage a lot of the cumulative effect of a popular novel, with its long-breathed suspenseful elements. It is also in a breathtaking way a wholly successful attempt to colonise the immersive and thrilling effect of big franchise movie-making with all the visual and sound effects that we associate with the absolute height of blockbuster cinema.

It’s a thrilling experience and Tiffany, who was in Australia for the latter stages, and his associates such as Des Kennedy, have ensured the Australian production – the first outside of the West End and Broadway – should have the audience gasping out loud at the drama that tugs at the heart, the magical effects that defy the eye, designed by Steven Hoggett, and the soundscape by Imogen Heap, assisted here by Pete Malkin.

This is a show that tumbles you into a kaleidoscopic magical world that is intrinsically theatrical. Creatures float like phantoms from the heavens, one character changes into another, and all manner of bright and ghostly lights come at you from god knows where.

The effect is at least as remarkable as the highest sort of inflection of the musical. This Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany metamorphosis of the matter of Harry Potter does something else, something as weird and innovative as the sung-through Les Mis or Lloyd Webber-style musical but with even broader appeal – it brings a jack-in-the-box level of fantastical illusionism back into a theatre born of famous books and films that strives for an effect of romance as surely as the Victorians strove for melodrama. In fact, it ends up with something similar, at which the audience thrills with pleasure because it has so much realism wrapped around its high and mighty magical mysteries.

The story of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a very clever distillation of everything that’s come before. Harry’s now high in the Ministry of Magic and married to Ginny Weasley and Hermione is a great power in the land married to Ron, who slouches around unpretentiously running his shop. Harry is full of intense worried dadishness about his son, Albus, who is no kind of screaming success at Hogwarts – in Slytherin, no less – and whose best mate is Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco, who also wanders around concernedly in his blond ponytail being aristocratic and paternal and looking a bit like a younger Karl Lagerfeld, just deceased.

Into this world comes a glamorous rough witch named Delphi who has all sorts of bright black surprise packets to offer. There are appearances from Dumbledore (via his portrait), Hagrid, the odious Dolores Umbridge, Moaning Myrtle and the richest and most economical selection of old familiars, including some of the creepiest-looking Dementors of which the mind could conceive and a crucial apparition of the Dark Lord himself, Voldemort.

In practice, it’s a pretty irresistible combination and various subtleties and confusions of time travel make the wilderness of variables on show possible. It’s a coherent exhibition of Joanne Rowling’s universe even though the trick – handled with great freshness and vigour – is to present the old familiar world through the worries engendered in their parents, especially their fathers, by the two young boys, who can come across both to themselves and their dads as bits of losers. This is so even though the resounding ethical core of Rowling’s vision – and the source, one suspects, of the depth of her power to charm and captivate and enthral – is to present heroism of the most prodigious kind as always a potential of the ordinary.

The two central lads – Sean Rees-Wemyss as Albus and William McKenna as Scorpius – are both very good indeed. Rees-Wemyss was in the Joanna Murray-Smith play Fury, about the boy who lobs a brick through a mosque window, and he has slightly gormless good looks, personable but a bit pudgy, which is just right for the hero’s progeny. McKenna as the hopeless, ugly duckling of a supremely sinister clan is pretty magnificent, with a kind of on-the-spectrum weirdness that is entirely consonant with his shy-boy poignancy and his high comedian’s sense of timing.

Madeleine Jones is beautifully relaxed, poised and intent as the witch girl Delphi, who comes into their lives like a portent of how worlds can dissolve or reconfigure. Elsewhere, both the acting and the detail of the writing can be slightly variable but always does the trick. Gareth Reeves is a comprehensively mild Harry whom we can imagine as a hero and who has the right kind of floundering, vehement intensity for the late-30s guy to whom being a dad is a strange surprise. It’s a good performance without being a dazzling one, but that’s a plank Rowling has wanted her hero to walk ever since the days of Daniel Radcliffe.

Gyton Grantley is a natural charmer as Ron because the character has turned into such a likeable, unpretentious slob. If Tom Wren is sometimes a bit stiff as Draco he looks utterly right for the part, with an elegant, slightly absurd handsomeness.

Paula Arundell has a flinty dignity as Hermione, capturing the character’s toughness and loftiness of purpose and touches of her wry humour. David Ross Paterson as Snape, first seen from the back, with that Richard III-like hair and the familiar sepulchral diction, brings a whiff of the glamour of British theatre royalty that was such a superadded grace note to the films.

Debra Lawrance as Professor McGonagall is not Dame Maggie Smith (who is?), but after her magnificent and moving stint as Josh Thomas’s mother in Please Like Me she is a famous actress lending the lustre of her recognition value to the role Dame Maggie once described as “just Jean Brodie in a witch’s hat”. She doesn’t aspire to that peculiar strangulated sweetness that Smith gets in her Edinburgh mode, but she has a homely authority of her own.

Homeliness, of course, is part of the package with J. K. Rowling’s magical folk sagas. You get a strong sense with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that a significant part of the audience will be made up of the millennials who learnt to read and be enthralled by reading through their discovery of Harry Potter.

It’s interesting in that respect that the emotional crux and the element of sentimental risk that comes with this show is all to do with the conflict and confusion of fathers and sons, parents and children. Harry famously learnt to be a hero, he found he could speak Parseltongue – a trick he retains here – but although he knew about his father and had the great example of his godfather Sirius, he never knew tender or expert fatherhood up close. This is near the heart of the quieter emotional moments of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and although it doesn’t topple into the cauldron of sentimentalism, you can see the risk.

But this is a triumphantly successful production, at once innovative and deeply traditional, of material the world already cherishes and which it advances and develops in a highly imaginative way. It manages this with the greatest degree of high-tech magic and a hell of a lot of pure stagecraft. This is a production where the whirl and tilt of wizards’ cloaks can have the dynamic beauty of great ballet.

Whether people want to see it over two evenings or as part of a day-long marathon is up to them. But it’s a long time since anyone has seen a first-night – well, first-day – audience scream and stamp with such impassioned glee at something that is obviously a sure hit because it has such a deep and mysterious grip on what the folk cling to and treasure and are deeply, deeply beguiled by.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "Thirty Harry". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.