Saturday 12 November 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ The Palace Theatre

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ The Palace Theatre

Anyone who follows JK Rowling on Twitter will be aware of her political views. She is a champion of the outsider, a notion that threads its way through her Harry Potter novels. Her unlikely heroes may be magical, but they're not only outsiders to our real world, they're considered freaks in their own: from Hermione's "mudblood" roots, to the working class Weasleys, the triumph of the meek Neville Longbottom, and of course Harry and his miraculous scar.

That notion is as true as ever in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play that is considered the eighth story in the series. Here, outsiders are literally known as "spares", periphery characters who unexpectedly have the power to change their fate. Without spoiling anything, the narrative revolves around time travel, which allows Rowling and co-writer Jack Thorne to retrace key plot points from the series seen from a new angle. It's incredibly clever and works in multiple ways: as a reminder of the past, as a nostalgic device, and a way to add new layers to an existing story. It feels like a credible story within Rowling's world and a part of the main canon, not just a tacked on story for financial gain.

Yet the spell doesn't quite last. Much has already been said about the decision to split the play into two parts and, really, it's unnecessary. Whilst it allows fans to revel in the world for that bit longer, the narrative's plausibility feels stretched. There are plot holes in abundance, characters are either dropped or mentioned but never seen, and the twist in Part Two on which it all rests upon is predictable and (for this fan at least) unrealistic. At this point it starts to feel a little forced. Perhaps Rowling should learn from these characters and know that playing with time gets very, very messy.

It's not all about time travel though. There's a continuation here of the series' main theme of conquering death: here it's about accepting death as part of fate and that tampering with the past has dire consequences. The real story, though, is between Harry (Jamie Parker) and his second son Albus (Sam Clemmett). There's a disconnect between them, Harry struggling to deal with fatherhood and Albus unable to live up to both his father's legacy and his expectations. The plot therefore encapsulates teenage angst better than the books did and however much it loses its way, this father-son story is told with warmth and sincerity and is the real heart of the show.

The plot of Cursed Child, then, is true to the books in the best and the worst way. It's clever and imaginative, it's a little flawed, and it's not always brilliantly written. There are cheesy one-liners and cheap laughs for the audience that crucially break the magic, but these moments are forgivable in the grand scheme of things.

Really, the magic of Cursed Child comes from the production and John Tiffany's direction. What's so special here is the restraint. The show is undoubtedly a spectacle, but it's often done through minimal staging that leaves much to the imagination. In that sense, it's truer to the books than the films could ever be - there's no CGI effects here, just the magic of live theatre. From the genius use of moving staircases and old suitcases to represent sets, to the subtle changes of lighting, and the authentic costumes, this is literally the world of Potter in your mind come to life.

Special mention must go to Steven Hoggett's movement direction. Each scene change is carefully choreographed with swooshes of capes as new scenes materialise before our eyes. And the dance sequences, whilst perhaps a little eccentric, add sparkle and flair. The magical effects are at times astounding, even though regular theatre-goers are sure to see the mechanics. Ignore the use of shadows and people, and a little suspension of disbelief goes a long way.

It's all soundtracked by a score from popstar Imogen Heap, arranged by Martin Lowe. Whilst the music itself is beautiful - full of lush chorales and glittering electronics - it sometimes feels too anachronistic to the look and feel of the play, a modern touch in a world otherwise steeped in tradition. The music is also mostly reworkings of Heap's existing songs, which is a disappointment, even if it mirrors the narrative's retelling of familiar ideas.

As for the cast, their performances certainly reflect the personalities of the books. Noma Dumezweni is a brilliantly bossy Hermione, Paul Thornley is an amusing (if underused) Ron, and Jamie Parker leads the cast as a slightly temperamental Harry. It really is the old gang back in action, just now a little older and wiser. Plus, the time-travelling story allows for some fun changes - a rebellious Hermione was particularly enjoyable. Other characters (no spoilers) make a return, whilst the new characters slot nicely into the story - the pairing of Anthony Boyle's Scorpius Malfoy and Sam Clemmett's Albus Potter have obvious character traits, but they have great chemistry on-stage.

Through the story of Cursed Child, Albus learns that your heroes aren't invincible - especially when it's your dad. Likewise, fans will learn that Rowling too isn't invincible. In the words of Dumbledore himself, "Perfection is beyond the reach of humankind, beyond the reach of magic". From a theatrical point of view, Cursed Child is a wonderful spectacle with some narrative flaws that remains one of the most exciting experiences on London's West End. But from a fan point of view, this is literally Harry Potter on stage. That, in itself, is an almost perfect dream.


Watch: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child runs at the Palace Theatre until December 2017.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ The Palace Theatre