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Mark Shenton: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child can change the way we see theatre

Sam Clemmett and Jamie Parker in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan Sam Clemmett and Jamie Parker in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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It is impossible to draw conclusions of this nature from a couple of performances, but I’ve seen the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child double bill twice over – on two Sundays, three weeks apart – and I don’t think I’ve sat among a more attentive, well-behaved audience in years. Once could be a fluke; twice makes me think that something’s afoot.

Read Mark Shenton’s review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

The audience is so eager they start queueing to go in an hour or more before the show starts. It’s helped by emails from the producers urging theatregoers to arrive early to get through security, but once they arrive, the next biggest queue is for the merchandise counter in the entrance foyer – it snakes down the stairs to the stalls and has to be policed by ushers. Interestingly (and possibly disappointingly for theatre operator Nimax), the bars are very sparsely attended, both before the show and during the interval. One suspects bar prices (Cokes at child-unfriendly prices of £2.80) don’t help.

Normally my heart sinks when I see hordes of kids around me, but on this occasion it’s the kids who are more invested in the show than the adults. Michael Billington admitted in his review in The Guardian to getting a little help from a younger relative: “I relied heavily on the expertise of my 11-year-old grandson, who was able to explain to me the intricacies of a Triwizard Tournament, sat enraptured through the day and who made a basic critical point: ‘If you’ve read the books, you’ll get more out of the play’.”

As I wrote in my own review, “The house was virtually full 10 minutes before curtain up and the sense of eagerness and expectation was palpable. At the end of each and every act, the audience roared their approval.”

This is not your typical theatre reaction, but then these are not typical audiences. Co-producers Colin Callender and Sonia Friedman have said in an interview with The Guardian that more than 50% of their audience are first-time theatregoers, and more than 50% are under 35, which – in Friedman’s words – “is genuine audience development for our industry”.

Theatres are forever chasing the holy grail of younger audiences, since that’s where the audiences of the future are going to come from. Just as the Harry Potter books got kids reading voraciously, could this play do similar things for them acquiring a taste for the theatre? 

As The Stage’s print editor Alistair Smith has suggested, “After Harry Potter’s publication, there was a massive boom in the young adult novels market – some were good, some less so, but the industry tried to replicate the success of Harry Potter by creating more of the kind of work it thought readers wanted to read. New audiences from Harry Potter are not going to jump straight from Cursed Child to Chekhov, so theatre must look to do the same – we need shows that will tempt these audiences back into theatres to show them that the magic of Harry Potter is not a one-off, but something that theatre can do week in, week out.”

Shows as good as this don’t come along every day. And producers who cynically pursue younger audiences with star casting – Lindsay Lohan in Mamet! Kit Harington in Marlowe! – but deliver lousy and/or muddled productions of classic plays, are liable to put those audiences off from going again, rather than create a lifetime habit.

But just as Hamilton on Broadway is making musicals both hip and in the news again, so Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a revolution that could change the West End forever. And, at least for the first booking periods, it’s a show that doesn’t just turn the clock back within the show – but also to the time before premium tickets. These have been notably absent from the price roster; and if producer Sonia Friedman maintains this policy, it would make her the most radical producer of the past 20 years.

I also doubt the secondary ticketing market is going to get much traction from the show either. When the tickets have already been bought by real fans, they’re not going to rush to resell them, regardless of the inflated prices they can get for them. I’m sure some will surface, and will be at extreme prices since there’s so little supply, but it would be nice to see that market stumped.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child could be quietly changing the way commercial theatre is perceived, and also the attitudes of the industry and its customers.

Read more stories about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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