Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I & II

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

✭✭✭✭✭

by Jack Thorne, directed by John Tiffany

Harry Potter Theatrical Productions, Palace Theatre, London, GBR

July 30, 2016-booking to February 16, 2020

Harry: “Hogwarts will be the making of you, Albus”

Just like the Harry Potter heptalogy of novels, their sequel in the form of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I & II is proving a phenomenon in its own right. It received a record-breaking eleven nominations at the 2017 Laurence Olivier Awards and won a record-breaking nine awards, including Best New Play, Best Actor, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Director. At the 2018 Tony Awards it was nominated for ten awards and won six including Best Play and Best Direction of a Play.

The play itself poses several questions. First, J.K. Rowling said that she was finished with Harry Potter since she had concluded the novels, so what else does she have to say in Cursed Child and why does she need nearly six hours to say it? Second, after writing seven extraordinarily successful novels, why should Rowling wish their sequel to take the form of a play? Third, we know that the novels are enjoyable fantasy literature, but how can a fantasy play be so good that it should win Best Play accolades on both sides of the Atlantic?

About choosing a play for the sequel Rowling wrote in 2015, “To answer one inevitable (and reasonable!) question ... I am confident that when audiences see the play they will agree that it was the only proper medium for the story”. It turns out that this is exactly right. While the seventh novel of the Harry Potter series seemed to come full circle by showing Harry and his wife Ginny seeing their three children take the train off to Hogwarts, Cursed Child explores bringing Harry’s story full circle in a much more profound way.

The plot of Cursed Child has two aspects. The primary focus is on Albus Potter (Joe Idris-Roberts), the middle child of Harry (Jamie Ballard) and Ginny (Susie Trayling), who feels crushed by his inability to live up to his famous father’s reputation. Albus befriends of all people Scorpius Malfoy (Jonathan Case), the son of Harry’s longtime enemy Draco (James Howard). 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 (Barry McCarthy).

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 (Nicola Alexis), now Minister of Magic, who is married to Ron Weasley (Thomas Aldridge). 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.

As far as these two plots are concerned, there would be no particular reason why Cursed Child should be a play since both of these plots move forward primarily through action. The overriding reason that Cursed Child is a play is because 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 difference to be reconciled. The play, in fact, compares and contrasts no fewer than five sets of parents and children.

From its plot alone, Cursed Child may be the most engaging, non-musical fantasy play for both children and adults since J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904). The emphasis of Rowling’s story, co-written with adaptor Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, on the complexities of the parent-child relationship gives the play its psychological depth and the characters their substance. This psychological aspect of the play moves forward primarily through dialogue, not physical action, and helps explain why Rowling believes that a play is the most suitable medium for this sequel.

Those who have seen other works directed by Tiffany, such as Black Watch (2006) or the musical Once (2011), will know that he uses simple but highly theatrical means as an integral part of his storytelling. So it is here and he matches the complexity of Rowling’s story as dramatized by Thorne with a seemingly inexhaustible store of theatrical invention. That invention does include magical illusions designed by Jamie Harrison, but in the context of the play, those illusions do not exist for their own sake but seem merely an extension of the play’s general theatricality.

As in Black Watch or Once, Tiffany uses a minimum of props to a maximum of effect. The two main props in Cursed Child are two large staircases. One on its own may represent the staircase under which Harry had to live as a child with the Dursleys. The two together shifted by manpower to point away from the audience 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 staircase 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 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. Capes are also instrumental when characters take the Polyjuice Potion and 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 al. 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. Those who look closely will see that Tiffany accomplishes this marvellous effect by one of the oldest magical means possible – black-suited assistants against a an all-black background. Knowing how it’s 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 carefully manipulates the use of the effects so that they gradually become bigger as the play nears the end of each act. Yet, the key to Tiffany’s success in directing Cursed Child is that he uses these theatrical effects entirely in service of telling the story and never to overshadow the human relationships between characters. His judicious balancing of the theatrical and the dramatic is an amazing achievement that other directors of fantasy shows would do well to study. As in Rowling’s novels, her characters happen to live in a magical world but what draws us in is the humanity of their situations.

I missed both the first and second casts of Cursed Child, but such is its strength that it is difficult to imagine any cast being better than the present one in London. In no way does Tiffany or his cast treat the play as if it were a children’s show even though the play is listed as suitable for ages 10 and up. There is no sign of the sort of exaggerated acting that some directors encourage for that kind of entertainment. Rather Tiffany and the cast take the view that even if the nature of the play is fantasy, that does not mean the personal, political and philosophical issues the characters face are any less serious.

The principal example of the play’s earnest tone is the performance Jamie Ballard as the adult Harry Potter. From the first Ballard depicts Harry as troubled and anxious. Part of this disquiet stems from the alienation he feels from his middle child Albus. Later we see that he is also fearful because of intimations he has had that somehow Voldemort is returning. The truth is that Harry is actually disappointed in Albus and Ballard is excellent in showing how that poisonous feeling seeps through even when Harry denies it. While Harry does have lighter moments, Ballard masterfully gradates Harry’s nearly constant level of worry until it grows into anger and painful resignation.

Joe Idris-Roberts feels like the perfect choice to play Albus to Ballard’s Harry. Idris-Roberts captures the mass of conflicting emotions in Albus from disappointment in himself and in his father to reckless rebellion and attempts at bravery. Idris-Roberts fully projects the difficulty of the son of a hero who struggles to find his own identity and sense of self-worth as he tries to find his place in the world.

In contrast to Idris-Roberts’ resentful Albus, who always seems to be labouring under a dark cloud, is the hilariously geeky Scorpius Malfoy wonderfully performed by Jonathan Case. At first we wonder how so severe a person as Draco Malfoy could have such an awkward, cowardly child as Scorpius, but that is exactly the problem. That is what Draco himself wonders and Case shows us that Scorpius has been reduced to a boy who feels worthless because of his father’s disapproval. Scorpius tries through self-satire to act as if it doesn’t affect him, but what Case depicts so well is a boy crushed by Draco’s disgust that he is near to despair.

James Howard is just as imperious and malevolent as one would wish Draco Malfoy to be. In Cursed Child, Draco and Harry find themselves uneasily on the same side. Both fathers are having difficulties with their sons who have since become best friends. The damage that their sons’ adventures cause reflects badly on them both. Draco especially would like the Ministry of Magic to quash the hurtful rumours that Scorpius is really Voldemort’s son. Jason Howard and Jamie Ballard well evoke the tension and mistrust that exists of old between their characters, but Howard makes Draco a more complex figure than we would have imagined and subtly depicts how Draco struggles with his pride to ask for favours from Harry and his friends. When once Draco lets his guard down, he gives us a surprising revelation of what Draco really thought of Harry back when they were students at Hogwarts together. 

The most important character making 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. Eve Ponsonby lends Delphi an indefinable air of instability. Initially, we assume that her constant look-over-her-shoulder nature must be due to feeling inferior to Harry and Scorpius who are learning magic properly at Hogwarts. Gradually, however, Ponsonby gives Delphi’s intensity an strangely uncomfortable edge that only increases as the action moves forward.

In other roles we are happy to see what Ginny and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger are like almost 20 years after the last novel. Susie Trayling shows that Ginny is as kind, warm and concerned as we would imagine her to be and has more insight into the struggle between Harry and Albus than does either the father or son. Nicola Alexis is as authoritative, fair and knowledgeable as we would expect an older Hermione to be and it is no surprise that her hard work has made her an effective Minister for Magic. Alexis’s Hermione is a complete contrast to the Ron Weasley of Thomas Aldridge, who is laid-back, unambitious and happy not to have the myriad concerns his wife does.

It’s also a pleasure to see Sandy McDade play Professor McGonagall as the strict but sensible Scots-accented Head of Hogwarts, April Hughes as the completely dotty ghost Moaning Myrtle and Adrian Christopher as the powerful, otherworldly centaur Bane. The cast of 36 works as an ensemble and Tiffany frequently stages precisely executed choreographic interludes that sum up the mood of the previous scene.

With its epic tale that finally caps off the saga of Harry Potter, with its highly imaginative theatricality used in telling the story and with its superb performances from the entire cast, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is an absorbing play that no Harry Potter fan will want to miss. Reading the published script gives little hint of the excitement of seeing the story play out live on stage. Tiffany has replaced all of the wallpaper of the Palace Theatre with Hogwarts wallpaper and often extends the action into the auditorium. We as an audience feel included when Hermione addresses the assembled witches or when Professor McGonagall speaks to the assembled students. It is a thrilling show and a suitable finale to a fantasy series that has deservedly won world-wide acclaim. Even though the play is nearly six hours long, many will feel that one viewing is not enough to immerse oneself so fully in a magical world that is so detailed, complex and profound.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Susie Trayling as Ginny, Joe Idris-Roberts as Albus and Jamie Ballard as Harry; James Howard as Draco and Jonathan Case as Scorpius; Nicola Alexis as Hermione, Helen Aluko as Rose and Thomas Aldridge as Ron, © 2018 Charlie Gray. Jonathan Case as Scorpius and Mark Theodore as the Sorting Hat with the ensemble, © 2018 Manuel Harlan.

For tickets, visit: www.harrypottertheplay.com.