Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a spellbinding live experience despite its storytelling shortcomings

“Keep the secrets.” This was the mantra Harry Potter creator JK Rowling impart to those of us lucky enough to attend the preview sessions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new stage play that continues the story of everyone’s favourite boy wizard.

It’s thanks to this mantra that I’ve held off from posting my Cursed Child review, however, considering Rowling just published the play’s script– including its many surprises – now feels like a good time to share my own, spoiler-free verdict. I’m happy to report that as a live experience Cursed Child is pure magic – so much so that its many storytelling shortcomings are easy to overlook.

What is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child about?

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child picks up right where the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left off. Now in his late thirties, Harry (Jamie Parker), is back at Platform 9 ¾ to bid farewell to his children, including insecure youngest son, Albus (Sam Clemmett), as they head off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Struggling to come to terms with his father’s status as a living legend in the Wizarding World, Albus befriends Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle), the son of Harry’s former schoolyard rival, Draco (Alex Price). The two boys form a strong bond as Hogwarts’ newest outcasts – Albus for his failure to live up to his father’s image, and Scorpius for his family’s association with the Dark Arts (not to mention salacious rumours regarding his true parentage).

But while these two misfits do their best to survive the trials of adolescence, the seemingly vanquished forces of evil begin to stir once more. Soon, a terrifying plot is put into motion that threatens the Wizarding and Muggle worlds alike, and it hinges on the involvement of Albus and Scorpius…

An emotional epic that powers through its storytelling shortcomings

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Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is categorically not the eighth book in the series. Yes, it’s the latest (and final?) entry in Harry’s story, but it’s better to think of it as a standalone sequel to the books, since it differs drastically in terms of structure and scope – although even with the limitations of the stage, it still delivers far more epic sweep than virtually any other show out there.

Indeed, you’ll struggle to find a bigger play than Cursed Child. I don’t just mean in terms of its box office returns or connection to the Harry Potter multimedia juggernaut. It’s also quite literally big: it’s two whole plays (billed as Parts 1 and 2) fused together, with a total viewing time of over five hours. The story it tells – conceived by Rowling, writer John Tiffany and director Jack Thorne – starts slowly, but the pace begins to build by the second half of Part 1, and Part 2 moves towards its emotionally devastating conclusion at a brisk pace.

Overall, Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne deliver a strong story, although there are times when it feels like a well-written piece of fan fiction. There are some rather convenient plot developments throughout both Part 1 and 2, and a few exceptions aside, the plotting never lives up to the intricately foreshadowed cleverness of Rowling’s books. Fortunately, the occasionally clunky narrative is charged with emotion, and there are several moments – particularly during the home straight – that left the audience misty-eyed and helped paper over any cracks in the plot itself.

Real magic, right before your eyes

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It also doesn’t hurt that the staging is both clever and exceedingly effective, filled with striking visuals and amazing “I can’t believe I’m seeing this live on stage” moments.

I meant it when I referred to the show as being magic earlier on: there’s simply no other way to describe the illusions and special effects artistry by Jeremy Chernick and Jamie Harrison. While the gouts of flame that burst from wand tips seem fairly simple, by the time you’ve seen characters physically transform before your eyes, or encountered your first otherworldly creature, you’ll be convinced that Chernick and Harrison have conjured up the supernatural for real. Then there’s Cursed Child‘s music, which is perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the entire production. Imogen Heap (of Frou Frou fame) has composed a restrained yet highly effective score that rarely draws attention to itself and yet serves to heighten the emotion of each scene.

But of course, the deciding factor in determining whether Cursed Child was going to soar like a Hippogriff or skulk like a Basilisk was always going to be the acting, and fortunately, the performances here range from “Exceeds Expectations” to “Outstanding”. Of these, the true highlights are Parker as Harry and Boyle as Scorpius, with Noma Dumezweni also putting in a strong turn as Hermione Granger that should silence her online doubters. Props are also due to Paul Thornley as Ron Weasley, who brings some much needed comic relief to what is an often quite a heavy-going affair.

A spellbinding yarn for diehard and casual fans alike

Crafting a satisfying follow up to the Harry Potter series was always going to be a tall order, and yet somehow director Jack Thorne and writers JK Rowling and John Tiffany have managed to do just that. Bolstered by a stellar cast and stunning special effects, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child overcomes its occasional storytelling shortcomings to spin a spellbinding yarn that should please diehard and casual fans alike. If this really is Harry’s last adventure, it’s quite a victory lap, indeed.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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