Harry Potter and the Cursed Child review at the Palace Theatre, London – ‘entirely distinctive’
Spoilers: this review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child contains some description of the plot and production design. We are confident that the details disclosed will not diminish most theatregoers' enjoyment of the show.
After all the hype, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child turns out to be charmed rather than cursed. The first year of tickets sold out before the show had even gone into rehearsal and the show delivers on all the hope that eager fans have invested in it, both at the box office and in their hearts.
Harry Potter creator JK Rowling is co-deviser of this eighth instalment in the series, with playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. She has been urging theatregoers to #KeepTheSecrets so as not to spoil its surprises and revelations for future audiences.
But I can happily shout out from the rooftops of the Palace Theatre – of all the theatres in the West End the one that most resembles Hogwarts – that this is a major work in its own right, with an entirely distinctive theatrical life and shape.
It earns its place on the stage, feeling distinct from both the books and the screen adaptations. By turns playful and gripping, disturbing and detailed, poignant and powerful, it is superb family entertainment.
Just as the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was made into two films, this new story is staged in two parts. As such, it brings to mind the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1980 production of Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the gold standard of theatrical stage adaptations. Except that this is an entirely original piece of work, with a Dickensian sweep and momentum to the storytelling.
The Cursed Child begins 19 years after the final novel ends, with Harry Potter, now 37 and a father of three, and Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley married with children of their own. Both Harry and Hermione have ministerial positions in magical law enforcement.
The play opens with Albus Potter, Harry and Ginny Potter's middle child, leaving for his first term at Hogwarts, along with Hermione and Ron's daughter Rose. One of the first people they meet on the train is Scorpius, son of Draco Malfoy. Draco is just one of several characters from the books to re-appear in this story, some posthumously.
As the forces of dark magic start encroaching on the wizarding world again, this feels like it could be a metaphor for our own troubled times. Thorne and his collaborators balance this feeling of menace with a message of reassuring deliverance: it isn't just magic that will save us, but also love and community. The play also has echoes of Sondheim’s Into the Woods and is particularly poignant on the importance of parenting, for which the orphaned Harry has no road map of his own.
For those who are not already deeply familiar with the Potter oeuvre, the programme contains a four-page catch-up of the first seven stories, as well as a glossary of Potter terminology, like muggles – those who don't have magical powers – that have now become part of our language.
The theatrical wizards who've created this stunningly-realised alternative universe deliver one coup de theatre after another. Particular credit is due to Jamie Harrison, responsible for the astounding illusions and magic that pepper the show.
The audience gasps out loud at several effects – but the production is also informed by its humanity and the actors create fully rounded portraits. Jamie Parker is superb as the troubled Harry Potter, wrestling with adult responsibilities and unfinished childhood trauma, while his son Albus, beautifully played by the diminutive Sam Clemmett, is dealing with demons and challenges, too. Noma Dumezweni's Hermione and Paul Thornley's Ron are also finely etched, their performances combining warmth, vulnerability and winning humour. And there's also a striking and movingly supportive parental bond between Alex Price's Draco and Anthony Boyle's Scorpius. They are part of a larger ensemble, with most of the rest of the cast playing multiple roles, as familiar characters re-surface and some significant new ones also emerge.
The character of the production, meanwhile, is enhanced by the distinctive movement direction of Steven Hoggett (a regular collaborator of Tiffany’s) with military-style marching reminiscent of the pair’s work on Black Watch. The world also benefits from the evocative sets of Christine Jones, which have some surprises of their own. At one point, she draws on the theatre itself to evoke Hogwarts. Elsewhere the stage is dominated by a clock, and has several other time pieces whirring backwards as the action shifts between different time zones.
It could prove to be one of the most influential theatre works of the century
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no cynical attempt to cash in on one of the most successful literary franchises of all time. It has real integrity and, crucially, could prove to be one of the most influential and important theatre works of the century, introducing whole new generations of people to the joys of theatre.
Co-producers Colin Callender and Sonia Friedman have said that over 50% of their audience are first-time theatre-goers, and over 50% are under 35, which – in Friedman's words – "is genuine audience development for our industry".
I saw both parts of the play in a single day – more than five hours of theatre – and the audience was one of the most attentive I have ever been in. 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. But this is far more than just a show for the fans – it’s a truly game-changing production and a thrilling theatrical endeavour in its own right.