“Keep the secrets.”
That was the key takeaway imparted by Harry Potter creator JK Rowling 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.
With that in mind, I’ve held off on posting an in-depth review of Cursed Child until after the official release of the play’s script this week, in order to give fans the chance to experience the story – and its many surprises – for themselves first.
But now I think it’s well and truly safe to deliver a verdict, and I’m happy to say that (overlooking a few quibbles) Cursed Child is, well, pure magic.
Cursed Child picks up right where the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left off.
Harry (Jamie Parker), now in his late thirties, is back at Platform 9 ¾, bidding 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 soon befriends Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle), the son of Harry’s former schoolyard rival, Draco (Alex Price).
The two boys form a strong bond thanks to their status as outcasts – Albus for his perceived 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 are are doing their best to survive the trials of adolescence, the seemingly vanquished forces of evil begin to stir once more as a terrifying plot is put into motion that threatens the Wizarding and Muggle worlds alike, and which hinges on the involvement of Albus and Scorpius…
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 (something more naïve fans unfortunately found out upon buying the official script, which was missing the evocative prose they’d come to expect from Rowling’s work).
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, as it differs so strongly from them in terms of structure (rather than focussing on one year, it covers several) and scope – although it still delivers far more epic sweep than virtually any stage show out there.
In fact, 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 – two whole plays (billed as Parts 1 and 2) fused together, with a total viewing time of over five hours.
The story, 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.
Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne have pulled together a strong tale, although there are times when it almost borders on feeling like a well-written piece of fan fiction, with only the quality of execution elevating it to the level of Rowling’s previous novels.
As with those books, the narrative here is charged with emotion, and there are several moments – particularly, as hinted earlier, during the home straight – that left several members of the audience more than a little misty-eyed, and helped paper over any cracks in the storytelling.
These include some rather convenient plot developments (such as a certain character just happening to have EXACTLY what Harry needs at a pivotal moment), although it should said that, even if the plotting doesn’t quite a match for the borderline-convoluted, intricately foreshadowed cleverness of Rowling’s solo efforts, there’s still some solid examples of things being set up in Part 1 that pay-off in satisfying fashion in Part 2.
There’s also a handful of strange moments (particularly one aboard – or rather atop – the Hogwarts Express) that seem out of place even in a series concerned with magic, and which one wonders if Rowling herself devised.
But these are minor complaints, and by the time the curtain falls for the last time, you’ll have completely forgotten them as though Thorne has performed a memory modification charm on the whole audience.
In the same way, you’ll struggle to recall any of the weaker aspects of Thorne’s script, like the occasional clunky line or moment when a character flat-out explains their thoughts and feelings, given the strength of everything else surrounding these rough edges.
It doesn’t hurt that the staging is both clever and effective, filled with striking visuals and amazing “I can’t believe I’m seeing this live on stage” moments.
You probably rolled your eyes when I referred to the show as being “magic” earlier on, but honestly, the illusions and special effects artistry by Jeremy Chernick and Jamie Harrison are beyond impressive.
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 scratching your head wondering how Chernick and Harrison have pulled this off (and I’m deliberately keeping some of the most jaw-dropping effects under wraps!).
The music is perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise of Cursed Child though. 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 basalisk was always going to be the acting, and fortunately, the performances 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 quell any of her online doubters, and Paul Thornley’s Ron Weasley bringing some much needed comic relief to what is an often times quite heavy affair.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
The reason for this heaviness really boils down to the nature of the series itself, which – despite ostensibly being targeted at children – has always concerned itself with some pretty weighty themes.
Above all else, Cursed Child continues the series exploration of love.
In this instance, the wandlight is shone most prominently onto familial love, most specifically, that between parents and their children.
Crucially, both Harry and Draco want to be good parents to Albus and Scorpius, but their own pasts prevent them from connecting with their sons and giving them the love and support they need.
In Harry’s case, whilst this could serve to cast our hero in an unflattering light, Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne make the bold choice to vividly portray (via nightmare sequences) the child abuse that Harry suffered at the hands of the Dursleys, and its effects on his parenting abilities.
Whilst this aspect of Harry’s background was only really hinted at previously – and even then, in a way that was often undercut with humour, to shield young audiences from its full impact – here we see outright just how traumatic the first 11 years of his life truly were, and how, for all that Harry would go on to find strong parental figures later in life to love, admire and learn from, the absence of any such role models early on in his life has left its mark on him.
For Draco, his parenting woes stem from his over-protectiveness, which is itself driven by a fear that his own child will experience a childhood as unhappy as his own, as well as the innate desire to shelter Scorpius from the cruel rumours that haunt the Malfoy name, most notably, that Scorpius’ true father is Lord Voldemort.
It’s not just the adults who can’t reach their kids, either.
For all that he rebels and snipes against his famous father, Albus ultimately craves Harry’s love. Likewise, Scorpius struggles with the emotionally distant Draco, and hell, even the villain of the piece, Delphi, longs for the affection of her own dad – which seems a tall order, given her papa actually IS Lord Voldemort!
Looked at through this lens, the play could just as easily have been titled Harry Potter and the Cursed Children, for even though the “cursed child” moniker is probably an allusion to spawn of the evil that is Delphi, almost all the lead characters are – or were once – “cursed” children.
Albus is cursed to follow in the footsteps of a father he can’t hope to compete with. Scorpius is trapped by the legacy of family name that has unfairly branded him an outcast. And Harry and Draco are running from unpleasant memories forged during their pre-adult years.
That last concept, the struggles we face growing up, also informs much of proceedings.
Whereas the previous seven entries in the Harry Potter series mostly emphasised the positives of growing up – even if Harry, Ron and Hermione did have the odd brush with unpopularity, they mostly had a pleasant time at high school (when they weren’t trying not to be murdered) – in Cursed Child, Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne balance this out by showing the other side of the story, a side that might ring more true to some readers left a little cold by this rosy picture of adolescence.
Because while many of us do look back fondly on our teenage years, just as many of us would rather just forget that whole time ever happened, with its memories of loneliness, uncertainty and pain. As Draco himself argues, maybe common wisdom has it wrong – maybe the hardest thing isn’t being an adult, but rather, growing into one.
Of course, no matter how much we might wish our past could be different, the last of the major themes running through Cursed Child is the reminder that the past cannot be changed, and all we can do is learn from it and accept it.
The time travel plot device is, of course, useful for driving home what Harry’s ultimate victory in Deathly Hallows means – by way of showing us, almost It’s A Wonderful Life-style, what would have happened had he NOT won – but the lessons learned by tampering with time are not nearly as important as those learned by allowing it to run its natural course.
Because by showing us that some things cannot be undone, that the deaths of Harry’s parents, of Cedric Diggory and countless others in the past cannot ever be reversed, Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne make it clear that the dream of a free and equal society must sadly come at great cost to those who believe in it.
And yet, at first, Harry’s refusal to use the Time Turner to rescue Cedric from his fate makes him seem like something of a hypocrite.
After all, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, didn’t he and Hermione do just that when they altered the course of history in order to save Harry’s godfather Sirius?
It’s not until we discover that changing recent events is far less dangerous than altering the distant past that we begin to understand Harry’s reluctance to rescue Cedric (who died over 20 years prior), and his eventual decision to stand by and watch as his own parents are killed, despite the natural desire to leap to their aid and endanger the entire timeline, totally restores our faith in our hero’s integrity.
The final scene then, where Harry takes Albus to Cedric’s grave, where he goes sometimes to say sorry to the young man killed for no reason other than being associated with Harry, shows us that we might not be able to change the past, but we can accept what has happened and try to find some closure within that acceptance.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
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 magic, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child overcomes any of its minor shortcomings to tell a heartfelt story that should please diehard and casual fans alike, and if this is to be the last we see of everyone’s favourite wizard, it’s quite a victory lap indeed.
That’s it from me – now it’s over to you!