Benet Catty Productions

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (WE 2016)

Aug 5, 2016

Palace

It was clear as soon as Harry Potter's teleportation to the West End stage was announced that the resulting two-part five-hour marathon would be critic proof. Even if it was a stinker it would run for years such is the all-conquering love for the character and the seven-book eight-film story about the Hogwarts wizard. The London reviews have ranged from very good to really great and it's sold out until December 2017, so any readers with a toddler should perhaps plan to take them to it as a treat for their 18th birthday.

The first thing to acknowledge is that there is no sense in which Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is trying to short change anyone by simply giving them what they already know and love. This is not a literary jukebox musical. It gives us many (indeed almost all) of the characters people know and love but often reconceived, whether by plot twists, time travel or (in the case of the key protagonists) by now being adults. It gives us new characters, particularly the children of the leads. It gives us magic, but of a theatrical kind and largely through old fashioned misdirection, quick changes, trap doors and flying. It is able to make jokes about itself without being smug. And the narrative is complex and plot-heavy. "Keep the secrets" we're told as we leave the theatre, which precludes me from including any plot spoilers - probably just as well as some of the twists and turns went completely over my head.

To walk the line between familiarity and originality, particularly when 80% of the adult audience and 100% of the child audience will know every reference, is a pleasing strength and a mighty achievement. Credit for this goes not just to the lionised J K Rowling but to playwright Jack Thorne, director John Tiffany and producer Sonia Friedman - surely the greatest British theatre producer since Cameron Mackintosh emerged on the scene in the 1970s.

The first act of Part One is easily the tightest and most theatrically successful. Briskly paced and economically staged, with characters introduced with wit and invention and a few wonderful sleights of hand which really give the sense that we're in for a good time. The show doesn't find this pace and interest again until the final 25 minutes of the second play, but the interim is by no means devoid of incident. If anything there is too much story to get through and too much set-up to explain, which necessitates long passages of successive scenes in which two people stand or sit in a room and discuss what they're going to do. There's too much talking about stuff rather than doing it. Other scenes are extraneous because they are just opportunities to display some magic tricks which don't contribute anything to the plot. The most exciting sequence, in which the villain of the show (I mustn't tell you who), gets his/her comeuppance is exciting exactly because special effects, story and character completely interlock.

What cannot be denied is that the performances across the board are terrific. Jamie Parker's usual dry delivery finds a perfect match as Harry Potter, now pushing 40, who's learning how to form a better relationship with his son Albus (Sam Clemmett) while dealing with his memories of losing his parents and what he dealt with as a child. "I wouldn't have survived Hogwarts" without his friends, he tells someone, "I wouldn't have survived at all." Noma Dumezweni is a terrific down to earth Hermione and Paul Thornley as Ron Weasley gets the lion share of the laughs while also being a well-rounded character whose personality has stayed charmingly consistent with his boyhood self. The great achievement throughout the cast is to be consistent with the characterisations of the books and films without just doing impersonations.

The show is not perfect. The music, by Imogen Heap, is a real dud: an odd mix of synth-pop (complete with drum machines) and irritatingly non-descript advert music. And the usually excellent Steven Hoggett provides some slightly embarrassing and extraneous dance sequences that will surely be cut before the inevitable Broadway transfer. But Mark Henderson lights it with great beauty and Christine Jones' design is a wonder of economy and spectacle, making a surprisingly simple set (just arches and a couple of staircases) design seem elaborate.

Whether you think Harry Potter is a good show, as I do, or a game-changing experience (as many first time theatregoers will find it) depends on how devoted you are to the source material and on whether you think any show on any subject can be worth 500 for a family of four wanting to see both parts.

One of the story's big themes is about fulfilling high expectations; the production's great achievement is proving that it is possible to match them if you respect your audience. And that's where the magic lies.

You probably won't get a seat until your grandchildren are old enough to buy them for you, but when you do it'll feel much closer to a blessing than a curse.


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