23 February 2019

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Sonia Friedman Productions, Colin Callender and Harry Potter Theatrical Productions
17 February 2019 (industry show)
Princess Theatre

The Australian company of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo by Matt Murphy

"Just read the 'kin' books, A-M."

That was my introduction to the world of Harry Potter in 2001. A friend handed me the books because she was horrified that I hadn't read any of the four. Being in our 30s, we were allowed to swear. By the end of the first chapter, I was equally horrified that I'd been quick to dismiss a children's book about a kid wizard at a posh boarding school. I got the next three books on the day they were released. And haven't devoured any books so quickly since.

It's still overwhelming to try and understand the global cultural impact of JK Rowling's Harry Potter series: 500+million copies sold, translated into 80 languages, best-selling book series ever. That's before the films, theme parks and JK's awesomeness on Twitter.

It's so much that I'm pretty sure that no review needs to explain anything about Harry, Ron and Hermione's years at Hogwarts. Even muggles know about them.

I wasn't convinced about the 19-years-later epilogue to book seven because it took away the readers' imagined futures for these loved characters. And I already felt a bit sorry for Harry and Ginny's kids who had to live up to being the children of the too-famous Boy-Who-Lived and being named after their dad's dead hero parents. Which seems light compared to the burden given to Albus Severus, the middle child, who's being sent off to wizard school named after two wizards who saved his dad and changed the world not very long before he was born.

The Australian company of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo by Matt Murphy

It's here that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins. And I take back every thought I had about not publishing the epilogue.

This new theatre story opened in London in July 2016. It's since opened on Broadway and the Australian production is the third. All are breaking theatre sales records, have won/will win piles of awards and are likely to run for so long that slowly saving up to buy a ticket is an option.

This new story begins as soon as you arrive at the theatre. The Princess has been refurbished for this show. It's now pretty much Hogwarts with dragon gargoyles, hand-painted walls and bespoke carpet. It's bloody gorgeous. And there are new comfy seats and backstage work that future shows are going to be grateful for.

But we're here for the story and are back on Platform 9 3/4 with the Potters and the Granger-Weasley's sending their children off to Hogwarts. As first years Albus and Rose Granger-Weasley are no-choice-cos-cousins friends, there's a bit of apprehension that this is going to be the kids re-living their parents' adventures story.

It's not.

Rowling, script writer John Thorne and director John Tiffany know that fans who have grown up with these stories deserve new paths.

#KeepTheSecrets is all over social media, on badges given to the audience at at the end of each part, supported by JK and is as effective as any spell. I'm pretty sure the spell extends to the published script because I'd forgotten most of it since I read it.

I'm keeping the secrets.

I'm happy to have very long discussions in person though.

William McKenna and Sean Rees-Wemyss . Photo by Matt Murphy

There's so much unexpected joy in the on-stage twists and revelations – even the heartbreaking ones – that it'd be heartless to deny any fan those experiences. Even the program has spoiler alerts and warns readers when to stop reading.

It's not a secret that Albus (Sean Rees-Wemyss) befriends Scorpius Malfoy (William McKenna) and that the Sorting Hat makes a decision that will make people re-think their own house choices. Or that they muck about with time.

Fans will continue to debate whether it's canon. Most accept it's a story by JK, so it's now part of the world – even if it changes the consistency of a few million works of fan fiction. (Warning young cast members: you will be getting fan fiction written about you. It may be creepy.)

The script has moments of awkward exposition and favours the sentimental with an over-earnest belief in the power of love and friendship, but its tone is so like the books that minor flaws make no difference to the overall enjoyment of the story. They might stand out more if you don't know the world or appreciate that there are references and bonuses for fans in everything.

The new adventure brings in new characters but continues to explore the ongoing impact of Harry's traumatic childhood; he has some issues with being a dad. And it develops the characters of Ginny (Lucy Goleby) and Draco (Tom Wren) from love interest and enemy to adults who still spend way too much time dealing with Harry Potter (Gareth Reeves). Draco also has some daddy issues to deal with. Hermione (Paula Arundell) and Ron (Gyton Grantley) are, of course, also in the mix and it's no surprise that Hermione is a super success, that she and Ron are still in love, and that Ron is a pretty good dad.

Many other favourite Potter characters are welcomed back with squeals of love (or fear that is still love), but the story is led by Albus and Scorpius, whose trio is completed when they befriend a young witch called Delphi (Madeleine Jones) and set out to correct a wrong doing.

As in their own world, the new characters have to stand out amongst those who are already known, and one of the many delights of this production is how quickly Albus and Scorpius become as loved as the rest. Possibly because Albus is the child Harry deserves and that Scorpius is the child that Draco could have been had be been allowed to be enthusiastic and awkward – and been loved by his dad. And also because Rees-Wemyss and McKenna's bring complexity and questions to their performances.

The new characters have the freedom of being themselves, while the established ones have has 20-odd years of expectations from millions of fans weighing on them. Instead of trying to satisfy everyone, the cast (widely chosen from tv, funded theatre, indie theatre, music theatre and cabaret) seem to bring their own experiences of this world into their characters – even those who weren't born when the first books were released.

Some characterisations may be different from how readers have imagined them, but every one – from Harry to the unnamed Hogwarts students – reaches into the fandom and brings connection and understanding and a delightful mix up of expectations. All are wonderful, but keep an eye out for Debra Lawrance, Gillian Cosgriff and Soren Jensen.

The Australian company of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo by Matt Murphy

Regardless of the ongoing passionate discussions of canon and consistency, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was written as a theatre story and is told by theatre magic.

The design (Christine Jones) also begins in a train station where suit cases become train carriages but the most astonishing scenes are created by audience imaginations filling in the empty spaces. Some of the most emotionally significant scenes are created as simply as cast members moving a staircase.

There's never an attempt to hide the magic of being on stage. There's where's-your-nose sleight-of-hand magic alongside astounding black light work and misdirection. As an audience, we're able to imagine how the tricks work, except those that must be real magic because WOW!

There's so much WOW!
WOW! that never had to deal with budget constraints.
Heart-stopping, brain-bending, do-it-again WOW!, which is as much part of #KeepTheSecrets as the story.

I loved Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. 

As a fan, I want everyone else who loves this world to be able to see it.

But so many people will miss out on this experience because going to the theatre is expensive. It'd cost me a month's rent to take my niece and nephew. If I won the Friday Forty lottery, I'd have to make an impossible choice as to who gets to see it. I'm not denying the costs of creating such a show and keeping it running but there must be ways to welcome more people into the theatre.

Sponsors, government, producers, how can this be an experience that welcomes everyone?

As critics have no bias,  I knitted a Gryffindor-Slytherin-Hufflepuff-Ravenclaw scarf to wear to the show.

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