Stage Door Review

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

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by Jack Thorne, directed by John Tiffany

David Mirvish, Sonia Friedman, Colin Callender & Harry Potter Theatrical Productions, CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto

June 19, booking to December 24, 2022

Dumbledore: “Those we love never truly leave us”

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has finally arrived in Toronto. It is quite simply the most spectacular stage show you are ever likely to see. Unlike many shows set in a fantasy world, Cursed Child never uses spectacle for its own sake but always in service of the narrative. And here Cursed Child tells a story about the difficult relations between parents and children and about friendship that will to appeal both to those familiar with the Harry Potter novels and those who are not. The play is an example of stagecraft and storytelling of the highest order.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had been scheduled to open in October 2020, but the Covid pandemic put paid to that plan. In 2020 the show was to been presented in its original two-play form with Part One running 2 hours 45 minutes and Part Two 2 hours 35 minutes. Because of the lingering pandemic and because of doubts about how willing audiences would be to return to live theatre, Thorne created an abridged version of the two plays that now is only a single play running 3 hours and 20 minutes. It is that version that Mirvish is now presenting at the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre and is being presented in New York, Melbourne, San Francisco and Tokyo. The original two-play production is still running in London and Hamburg.

In shrinking the two-part Cursed Child into one play, the theatre producers have taken the opposite approach of Warner Bros. Pictures in dealing with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), the seventh novel of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter heptalogy. Seeing that the 607-page novel was too large for a single movie, Warner Bros. split the movie adaptation into two parts, Part 1 released in 2010 and Part 2 in 2011.

Judging from the success of the two-part movie, it is fair to say that for true Harry Potter fans more is better. Potterheads and fans of long-form theatrical spectacle are still filling up the two-play London and Hamburg productions and would likely do so in Toronto. If we account for intermission times, Thorne has had to cut about 1 hour and 45 minutes of the original play to whittle it down to a single play.

Having seen the two-play version in London in 2018, it is evident that Cursed Child as a single play has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage for families is that it that they can experience a Harry Potter story in the theatre for a lesser expense of time and money. Theatres can provide more single-play performances than two-play performances for audiences to choose from.

The disadvantages have to do with the nature of the experience. Unlike the two-play version, the single-play version feels like it is moving at breakneck speed. The characters now speak in an almost telegraphic style. To shorten the drama, Thorne has removed almost everything not related to the central plot, which in itself is quite complex. Information passes by so quickly you have to heighten your attention. If you miss a key line, which is easy to do, you may miss an important plot point.

In focussing on plot the single-play version devotes little time to rounding out characters or to filling in their back stories. In that way the two-play version works better as a stand-alone piece of theatre than does the single-play version. Indeed, to feel the full emotional impact of the conclusion in the single-play version, a person needs to know the at least the first book of the Harry Potter series, whereas the two-play version supplies enough background to feel its real poignancy.

Cutting out all but plot-related dialogue gives all but the main actors little to work with and leads to some anomalies. Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy get into a wand battle with seemingly no motivation except for the resolve “Let’s fight”. Bane the centaur (Kaleb Alexander) appears only to say that something bad is happening and then disappears. Snape’s Patronus appears for no reason at all. When Albus Potter, Scorpius Malfoy and Delphi transform into Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Grainger the two-play text explores the various facets of the humour of the situation. In the single-play text the humour is curtailed. In the single-play version some favourite characters have been cut out entirely like Hagrid and Vernon and Petunia Dursley.

Despite these disadvantages, writer Jack Thorne, who based the play on a story by Rowling, has kept the entire complex plot intact. The action takes place 19 years after the events of the seventh Harry Potter novel. For those who may not know the story of Cursed Child, I will give my summary from 2018 substituting the present actor’s names.

“The plot of Cursed Child has two aspects. The primary focus is on Albus Potter (Luke Kimball), the child of Harry (Trevor White) and Ginny (Trish Lindstrom), who feels crushed by his inability to live up to his famous father’s reputation. Albus befriends of all people Scorpius Malfoy (Thomas Mitchell Barnet), the son of Harry’s longtime enemy Draco (Brad Hodder). Scorpius is suffering too because of his father’s negative reputation and the terrible rumour that he may really be the son of Voldemort (pronounced throughout without sounding the final T). To prove themselves worthy to their fathers, the two friends undertake a wild adventure that involves using an illegal Time-Turner to go back in time and save Cedric Diggory from death at the Triwizard Tournament in order to bring him back to his still grieving father Amos (Steven Sutcliffe).

“Parallel with this plot is one involving Harry himself. Now one of many administrators in the Ministry of Magic, Harry’s scar has begun hurting again, a sign of the presence of Voldemort, who is supposed to be dead, and there are reports that various supernatural creatures have begun migrations. Harry mentions these concerns to Hermione Granger-Weasley (Sarah Afful), now Minister of Magic, who is married to Ron Weasley (Gregory Prest). She takes his concerns seriously. What we wonder, of course, is whether the two plots are related in some way as they always were in the novels. [Nevertheless] the plot elements, no matter how exciting they may be, are really only secondary to the play’s more general examination of the relation of parents and children – of why they don’t get along despite the best efforts on both sides and how they can overcome their differences to be reconciled”.

In the single-play version Thorne has cut back least on the difficult relationship between Albus Potter and his famous father Harry. Thorne also lets us see that this relationship is echoed in Harry’s own relationship with his spiritual father Dumbledore (also Steven Sutcliffe) and between Scorpius Malfoy and his once villainous father Draco. The exploration of the father-child bond is what gives the play its depth and makes it much more than a showcase for spectacular stagecraft.

Despite the abridgement of the text, one theme emerges that was present in the two-play version but was not so dominant as it is here. That is the relationship between Albus and Scorpius. The two should be enemies as Rose Granger-Weasley points out, since their fathers were implacable rivals at Hogwarts. But here Albus, in defiance of his father, deliberately makes friends with Scorpius, who, as it turns out, is as self-effacing as his father was intimidating. The two boys bond as two people viewed as outsiders because of their famous (or infamous) fathers.

In the course of the main plot in which Albus and Scorpius try to redeem themselves in others’ eyes by saving Cedric Diggory from death, the bond between the two boys moves beyond friendship to what can only be called love. Each is willing to sacrifice himself for the other. Each tells his father that there is no more important person in his life than the other boy. This being a family show, Thorne has so carefully pitched this theme so that children will likely see the Albus-Scorpius relationship as no more than an intense friendship. Adults, however, will likely see another dimension to the boys' relationship and note that neither Harry Potter not Draco Malfoy disapproves of it.

What will attract audiences to Cursed Child whether they are Potterheads or not, is Tiffany’s extraordinary use of spectacle. Tiffany has integrated all the theatrical arts – acting, movement, design, magic, music and both modern and ancient technology – so thoroughly that all or nearly all are involved at every point of the story.

As I noted in my review of 2018, “Those who have seen other works directed by Tiffany, such as Black Watch (2006) or the musical Once (2011), will know that Tiffany uses a minimum of props to a maximum of effect. The two main props in Cursed Child are two large staircases. The two together shifted by manpower to point away from the audience to represent the the Ministry of Magic from the top balustrade of which Hermione and Harry address the assembled witches and wizards below. In one of the most effective scenes in the play, Tiffany shows us how a rumour passes through Hogwarts as students walk up and down the notorious moving staircases of the college as the staircases continuously join and rejoin in different configurations.

“Tiffany uses cast members clad in voluminous capes to move the furniture about in choreographed sequences, their capes covering the furniture until the last moment when it is revealed in a flourish of the cape. Tiffany has the students’ ordinary clothes transform into academic gowns when the students push their trolleys through the invisible wall to reach platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station”. For this effect Tiffany borrows a centuries-old technique from kabuki theatre called bukkaeri (打っ返り) for an onstage quick-change. Capes are also instrumental when characters take the Polyjuice Potion to transform themselves into another shape.

“There is much use of flying in the familiar wired Peter Pan theatrical style. But Tiffany’s most imaginative use of this is when Albus and Scorpius search for something underwater and the actors’ beautiful use of mime combined with the flying mechanisms gives the wonderful impression of two boys swimming underwater. Yet, as usual, one of the greatest scenes of flying uses no mechanism at all. At one point Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy have an angry fight, wands out, and their blasts cause surrounding furniture and each other to bound up in the air in slow motion”. Tiffany accomplishes this marvellous effect by another borrowing from kabuki, namely the kuroko (黒衣) – black-clad assistants – placed here against an all-black background. Knowing how the effect is done only increases one’s admiration for how masterfully it is staged.

“Tiffany does use projections but quite unlike the directors of many other fantasy shows, he does so very sparingly. His most notable use of projections is to create the effect of the Time-Turner. When the characters using this device go back in time or arrive back in their own time, Tiffany has a projection of the back wall of the set wobble as if the new time period has not quite settled yet.

“In a typical gesture, Tiffany creates the train to Hogwarts by having the students create the compartments and seats out of the suitcase they are carrying. In one exciting sequence Albus and Scorpius escape from the train, which we note is made up entirely of suitcases, while the revolve the train is on turns to indicate that the train is in motion.... Tiffany’s judicious balancing of the theatrical and the dramatic is an amazing achievement that other directors of fantasy shows would do well to study”.

The characters affected the least by Thorne abridgement of the text are Harry Potter, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. Luke Kimball, fresh out of drama school, is an excellent Albus Potter. He conveys the mass of conflicting emotions in Albus from low self-esteem to recklessness to prove his self-worth. He clearly shows the pain of a youth, overshadowed by a famous father, who struggles to find his own identity.

Totally unlike the moody Albus is the comically nerdy Scorpius, just the opposite of what you would expect in the son of the malevolent Draco Malfoy. Scorpius is socially awkward and given to self-satire to make himself liked. His response to having a famous father is to feel worthless. Newcomer Thomas Mitchell Barnet communicates all this but tries rather too hard and unlike the other characters of his age tends to shout rather than speak his lines. As the story progresses Kimball and Barnet do very well at showing how the two friends help each other to acquire a sense of self-worth and how their friendship grows all the deeper for realizing how each finds strength in the other.

As Harry Potter, Trevor White is not quite what we would expect. White makes Harry appear to be in a constant state of irritability, partially from the burden of uninteresting desk work but mostly because of his emotional estrangement from Albus. As a result White makes Harry seem generally confused and emotionally volatile which is not what the role calls for. The actor playing Harry must give us some glimpse of the hero Harry used to be and, underneath his doubts, still is.

Brad Hodder is very effective as Draco Malfoy. His physical carriage and facial expressions exude the feeling of superiority that is Draco’s main character trait. Yet, Hodder also shows that Draco is not impervious to human feelings and is also a distressed father like Harry who is particularly incensed at the rumours that he is not Scorpius’ father. We enjoy seeing the old animosity between Draco and Harry flare up but it is not given as much scope as we would like in this abridged version.

Since the single-play version has stripped out all but the plot-related dialogue, the rest of the actors have to make a vivid impression as quickly as possible with the little material they have. Luckily, the all-Canadian cast is so strong that they are able to do this.

As Ginny Weasley, now Harry Potter’s wife, Trish Lindstrom acts as a steadying force for both Harry and Albus using rationality to temper their emotionality. As Hermione Granger, Sarah Afful immediately projects her character’s personality as strong and in command. In contrast Gregory Prest as Ron Weasley, now Hermione’s husband, is the comedian of the older generation. Prest is excellent in finding the humour in every one of Ron’s off-hand comments and in using his laid-back body language to contrast with the alert posture of the other adults. Hailey Lewis as Rose, the daughter of Ron and Hermione, shows in speech and gesture that she is a smart little keener just like her mother was.

The most important character in the play who makes her first appearance in the Potterverse in Cursed Child is Delphi Diggory. She is the nurse of Amos Diggory, father of Cedric, and says she is his niece. She is older than Albus and Scorpius, and though she never went to Hogwarts, she still is well conversant with magic. When she learns of Harry and Scorpius’ plan to go back in time and save Cedric from death, she fully backs their plan and helps them steal the Time-Turner from Hermione’s office.

In the two-play version Thorne gave the actor playing Delphi a backstory and more to say when interacting with Albus and Scorpius. In the single-play version, Sara Farb has almost nothing to work with. She does, however, make the difference between the Delphi we first meet and the Delphi we know later on as extreme as possible.

Special mention must be made of Fiona Reid and Steven Sutcliffe, who play more than one role. As Professor McGonagall, Reid is exactly the strict, intelligent, Scots-accented headmistress we imagine from the novels. Reid’s special triumph is as the outwardly proper but thoroughly evil Dolores Umbridge, dressed like a conservative church-going matron from the 1950s who uses the gentlest voice to say the most terrible things.

Sutcliffe plays not only the grieving Amos Diggory but also Professor Dumbledore and Severus Snape. Sutcliffe distinguishes these three in speech and body language so thoroughly that it is only by looking at the programme that you would guess one person played all three. It’s a potent demonstration of his mastery of acting.

From the point of view of both acting and of stagecraft, there is no doubt that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the one theatrical event in Ontario that must not be missed. It would have been wonderful if Toronto could have offered the two-play version as an alternative to the single-play versions running in New York and san Francisco. Yet, since that is not to be, the Toronto production makes the best possible case for the one-play version. This Cursed Child will leave audiences stunned with a level of awe-inspiring theatricality that they will never have seen before and may never see again. Whether you are familiar with the Harry Potter novels or not, Cursed Child is the must-see of all must-sees.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Sara Farb as Delphi Diggory, Thomas Mitchell Barnet as Scorpius Malfoy and Luke Kimball as Albus Potter with the Time-Turner; Gregory Prest as Ron Weasley, Sarah Afful as Hermione Granger, Hailey Lewis as Rose Granger-Weasley, Lucas Meeuse as James Potter Jr., Trevor White as Harry Potter, Luke Kimball as Albus Potter and Trish Lindstrom as Ginny Potter; Thomas Mitchell Barnet as Scorpius Malfoy and Luke Kimball as Albus Potter; Trevor White as Harry Potter and Luke Kimball as Albus Potter; the ensemble as students and professors at Hogwarts; Brad Hodder as Draco Malfoy, Fiona Reid as Professor McGonagall, Trevor White as Harry Potter and Trish Lindstrom as Ginny Potter. © 2022 Evan Zimmerman.

For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.