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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – review

“For most of its near five-hour running time, Harry Potter and the The Cursed Child is burdened by taking itself too seriously”

“All was well.” After seven books, 4,095 pages and 1,084,170 words, readers of the Harry Potter series were assured by the last line that despite The Boy Who Lived almost dying countless times, he had been blessed with the happy ending he deserved. But it turns out that all was well for about five minutes.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is written by Jack Thorne, based on a story by Thorne, John Tiffany and J.K. Rowling. Given its authorship, it has an uneasy relationship with the existing books but signs around the Palace Theatre proclaim this is “the eighth story”. Other signs ask the audience to #KeepTheSecrets so as not to spoil the show for those who have not seen it – and may not see it for some time. Obtaining tickets for the two part play is about as tricky as catching a Golden Snitch. So although this review will avoid divulging specific plot details, if you want to remain as oblivious as a Muggle stop reading now!

The play picks up where the epilogue of The Deathly Hallows left off. Nineteen years after the main events of the books, Harry and Ginny Potter are taking their second son Albus Severus to board the Hogwart’s Express for his first term at the school for wizards. Also taking the train is Ron and Hermione’s daughter Rose and (boo/hiss) Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius.

Potter and Malfoy Jnrs immediately strike up a friendship, bonding over their shared curse to be sons of famous and infamous parents. To paraphrase Larkin: They Fudge you up, your mum and dad, and their subsequent rebelling has severe consequences.

Much of The Cursed Child is carried with ease by the pair. Anthony Boyle plays Scorpius with wonderfully natural disarming charm. With his shock of shaggy blond hair and blustering mannerisms he is like a benign Boris Johnson. Sam Clemmett’s Albus grows more miffed and moody as the play continues the trajectory established by the books, with every instalment creeping into darker territory, Part One ending in a giddy cliffhanger that sees Hogwarts experiencing its gloomiest days seen yet.

If Harry Potter thought that being orphaned, raised by abusive relatives, discovering he was a wizard – one who had to fight, repeatedly, the biggest baddest villain ever – was tough, all that was nothing compared to the challenges of parenting a teenager. The tried and tested trio of friends from the franchise rally to rescue their offspring. Jamie Parker, Noma Dumezweni and Paul Thornley as Harry, Hermione and Ron are competent custodians of their characters. Harry is now a slightly dissatisfied desk jockey at the Ministry of Magic, Hermione has matured but has lingering busybody tendencies, while Ron is still the comic relief. Bloody hell.

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The play is always engaging but only intermittently exciting. The magic of the wizarding world conjured up on stage is often breath taking. Characters appear and disappear in a flash, things fly around. Other aspects of the staging are less impressive. The sets are evocative rather than revelling in the rich minutia that was always a joy of the books and films. The music too suffers in comparison to the sumptuous score from the films, a profound sounding chorus of airy vocals and thumpy beats – the kind of soundtrack you would expect over an advert for a solid German car brand or high definition TV.

For most of its close to five hour running time The Cursed Child is burdened by taking itself too seriously to allow anyone to have too much fun. Only in the last third does it find the right tone, an audience that has been gasping to giggle throughout finally getting relief. It underlines how pious and restrained the rest of the play has been and acts as a reminder that the success of Harry Potter was always in the spellbinding combination of a serious story delivered with a deft, light touch.

The Cursed Child is certainly not a play for children, and especially not one for Potter virgins – a working knowledge of the saga is essential to have a hope of following the plot. While the books were about love, loss and sacrifice, the major theme here is parenting. The books reflected the age of those reading, and since The Philosopher’s Stone was first published in 1997, many of the Potter generation will have become parents themselves.

In the programme there is even an essay by consultant psychiatrist Dr Shirley Gracias, writing about “how childhood experiences can shape the adults we become”. She argues that, “Harry grew up knowing his mother’s love saved him. The young Voldemort on the other hand didn’t have this protection…no one gave him the sensitive and nurturing care that Harry experienced and consequently he had to adapt his relationship strategies to protect himself.”

Clunky conclusion suggesting children from orphanages will grow up to be snake charming Dark Lords aside (and overlooking the fact the Dursleys always told Harry that his parents died in a car accident), if the benefits of coming from a loving, balanced family is a major concern of the play then it is a critical flaw for Albus’ mother, Ginny, to be largely absent from proceedings. The strained father son relationship between Harry and Albus is explored in several emotionally fraught scenes while Ginny remains on the side lines, as she did in the books and films. Poppy Miller has a thankless task in an underwritten role that requires little more than for her to play a one-dimensional concerned mother.

A more fundamental flaw is that instead of forging new ground, the play revisits and revises the Harry Potter story as we know it. Without giving too much away, there is a time travel element, with ramifications that will be no surprise to anyone who has seen Back to the Future, although the play explores these possibilities with far less wit and verve.

Though the special effects are impressive, the magic of Harry Potter was always in its story, its heart, its words. The climax of Rowling’s tale was not the Battle of Hogwarts or the epilogue, but the scene set in the spiritual version of King’s Cross Station where Dumbledore explained: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic”. The genius of Rowling was to remind everyone about the potentials of the written word. A phenomenal world full of characters and fantastical creatures had been conjured up by simple words on a page and the act of imagining. The pen is mightier than the wand. The Harry Potter stories contained real magic.

Here that spark is lacking. Perhaps the fact Rowling has not written the play herself results in it seeming like a tepid cover version, without continuing or expanding the world of Harry Potter. The Cursed Child merely counts on the affectionate memories the audience already has. Each emotional climax (including the finale) relies on recycling an event from the books, but in the process of toying with their structure, the very foundations on which The Cursed Child is built are threatened and destabilised.

Jeopardising the outcome of Harry’s story and heartening happy ending, which took over a million words and many years to get to, feels exploitative. Maybe there is no happily ever after in real life – but that was what made Harry’s world more magical than our own.

As the curtain comes down, the audience whoops as if their school had just won the Triwizard Tournament, but the thrills have been in seeing some old friends again instead of undertaking a new adventure, witnessing a spectacle without it being spectacular. All was just ok.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre, London W1

Picture credit: Manuel Harlan

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