This review contains spoilers.
It feels impossible to review Harry Potter and the Cursed Child without first acknowledging the downright strangeness of the fact that it’s a play at all.
This is, after all, Harry Potter. It could have been any damn thing it wanted to be.
The franchise may have been born in Britain, but at this stage it’s basically an international phenomenon, with an international following. The Potter fandom is definitely one of the largest and most significant anywhere.
And only a tiny fraction of that fandom will ever be able to experience what’s being called “the eighth instalment” – part of the canon – in the Potter franchise as it’s supposed to be experienced.
There is a book, of course. (Inevitably.) But let’s be honest: Cursed Child is not Shakespeare. It is not Pinter. It is not even Noel Coward. In short, it’s not the sort of play whose strength lies in its dialogue, or its insights into the human condition. It’s more like Chicago, or Les Miserables: its strength lies in spectacle, its ability to conjure emotion through stagecraft. To read Cursed Child is to miss out on what actually makes it good.
And yet: theatre is uniquely expensive. Actually going to see Cursed Child, for most people, will involve not just the ticket cost (I think the cheapest tickets are £30 each for both parts) but also travel expenses, food and at least one night’s stay in London. And that’s if you get the Saturday tickets, which allow you to see both parts on the same day, but which are also the most in-demand. If you can only get weekday tickets, you’re looking at probably two days off work and two nights in London.*
There are families with Potterhead children – or, indeed, Potterhead parents – for whom the cost of a hardback book is beyond them.
Creators are free to do whatever they like, of course (especially if they are gazillionaires), but this particular creative decision does seem to have its roots in generating hype through exclusivity (the team behind the show are even running a patronising #KeepTheSecrets campaign). Why else make something that most of your fanbase are never going to see?
Let’s move on to the show itself, for we cannot rant all night.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a story about fathers and sons. It begins with the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which, as you probably remember, Harry sent his son Albus off to Hogwarts worrying about which house he would get into at school. This, then, is Albus’ story: son of the famous Harry Potter, always unable to live up to that legacy; sorted into Slytherin, a rubbish flier, almost friendless. A disappointment (so he thinks) to his famous father.
It’s also Scorpius’ story: son of Draco Malfoy, and unable to escape that legacy; friends with Harry Potter’s son, much to his father’s contempt.
Scorpius and Albus feel like losers. As a result, they’re manipulated into going back in time using a stolen Time-Turner to rescue Cedric Diggory, who they see as another “spare”, someone who didn’t need to die.
Their meddling with time has predictably disastrous results. In one alternative future, Albus got sorted into Gryffindor and is forced to break up his friendship with Scorpius; in another, Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts, killed Harry Potter and took over the school. Meanwhile, the boys’ parents are going out of their minds looking for them, and trying at the same time to deal with the unexplained resurgence of dark creatures across the wizarding world.
Cursed Child has quite a lot in common with the later Potter books: it has no discernible structure – being more a succession of “and then”s – and, seemingly, no particular project beyond the fannish question of “what would Harry/Draco be like as a father?” The plot, specifically, becomes ever more byzantine as we wade into Part 2, throwing in an unnecessary extra twist in the form of the daughter of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange (instantly distracting everyone in the audience with the entirely unwanted image of Voldemort having sex, because really?), who wants to bring back Voldemort by going back in time and stopping him attacking the Potters. Which means the entire cast – Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Draco, Albus and Scorpius – all have to go back in time too and make sure that he does kill the Potters. My question is: doesn’t this radically alter the moral universe of the series? Doesn’t it mean that every time we read about Godric’s Hollow, we now have to imagine everyone there watching it happen – and doing nothing?
The play doesn’t really answer these questions, because it doesn’t seem terribly interested in thinking about how the mechanics of its time travel works. In Prisoner of Azkaban, everything that happened stayed happened: that’s how Harry survived the Dementor attack, casting the Patronus on his second time round the loop to save the version of himself that was going round the loop the first time. We can argue about whether or not time travel actually works like that (as the Resident Grammarian likes to), but at least it’s consistent. Whereas Cursed Child treats time travel as much more like a McGuffin that lets us perform various fanfic-type thought experiments with the franchise: what if Ron and Hermione never got together? What if Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts? And so on. Albus and Scorpius hop between timelines like alternative universes, with no particular regard for causality – except in the one case where it’s plot-convenient for something clever to happen with time travel. (It involves a blanket and some spilled potion, for readers who have seen the play.) Using time travel but skirting the thorny issues it raises seems like a) a waste, and b) cheating.
I’ve now bitched about Cursed Child for almost a thousand words. And yet, in all honesty, I loved it. Because it is very good – certainly better than the later Potter books – at being a fanwork. It’s aware, at a fundamental level, that for a huge majority of its audience Harry Potter isn’t just a fantasy series they happened to enjoy: it’s a narrative whose symbols are, for better or for worse, embedded deep in our psyches. It deploys those symbols as myth to press its audience’s buttons, so to speak. It doesn’t need to explain why stumbling upon Dementors at Hogwarts is bad, beyond bad; it just needs to put those Dementors there, with a suitably menacing soundtrack, to evoke fear and horror and suspense. The audience – including me – gasped when beloved characters’ names were mentioned in unexpected contexts; laughed at franchise in-jokes; cried at emotional bits that got their force not from any particular brilliance in the script-writing but because of the history we have with the characters. For example: Snape sacrificing himself in one of the alternative pasts to bring about the “correct” one again, and Scorpius telling him that he’ll be remembered as a hero. For example: Harry’s awful recurring nightmares about Voldemort and the cupboard under the stairs. The reason the play doesn’t have a single coherent project or structure is that it is, instead, a collection of resonant moments, continually reaching back to the original series for their emotional force. And its power in doing so is increased exponentially by the fact that it’s a shared experience: all those fans, having all those emotions at the same time – it’s like an emotional amplifier. This is something only theatre can do.
I haven’t yet mentioned the acting or the stagecraft, on the principle of saving the best till last. Because it’s really these things that bring the production alive. Anthony Boyle as Scorpius is easily the standout performance: weird, hunched and often a little scary – and full of pathos, too. Jamie Parker as Harry Potter is also fantastic – what a change it makes to have a decent actor playing Harry, bringing the full force of the character’s angst and trauma right to the fore. (This is hands-down one of the best things about the play, too: that we see Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, struggling with his traumatic past, and struggling with being a father; that he’s still able to make strong decisions despite it. It’s OK not to be OK.)
Music and dance are important to the play, too, holding those emotional moments and amplifying them further. My favourite scene (out of many contenders) was one in which Scorpius and Albus, forbidden to be friends, climb up and down and over staircases being shunted around on wheels by other members of the cast, to the soundtrack of a bass-led Imogen Heap instrumental track. It’s a beautiful sequence, one that really brought home to me that I was watching a love story of sorts. (Incidentally, I will forgive J.K. Rowling practically everything if Scorpius and Albus turn out to be bisexual and become boyfriends.) Scene transitions are made with much cloak-swishing; Albus’ confusion in a Charms lesson is rendered by students dancing gracefully around him while he flails clumsily. It’s a show constantly on the move, accentuating its lead characters’ isolation. And the magic! The production team have used every resource at their disposal to make objects fly, portraits move, people turn into other people. There’s one particular effect that neither I nor my friend could work out, and for all I know it could have been actual magic: whenever the characters used the Time-Turner the whole theatre seemed to vibrate, the air distorting like a bubble. It was astonishing, and wonderful.
I felt utterly heartsick for a while after seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, reluctant to leave its enchantment despite its very real problems. And that makes me angry: because this is not something that any Potterhead should miss. And so many will. If you can, go and see it.
*I’m lucky enough to live and work in central London, and I saw the shows on a Thursday and a Friday night. It cost me about £50 to see the two parts: £30 for one ticket, about £10 for four Underground fares, about £10 for two dinners at Wasabi. £50 is not necessarily a bank-breaking sum, but nor is it a trivial amount.