Why Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is worthy of its Olivier triumph

Jack Thorne and JK Rowling's West End sensation has broken records at the Olivier Awards - we should be proud that its appeal and influence reaches far beyond London's theatre-going elite

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On Sunday night, Jack Thorne and JK Rowling’s West End triumph Harry Potter and the Cursed Child made Oliviers history, winning nine awards after bagging the most nominations ever for a new play. It’s no real surprise though: the record-breaking two-part play debuted at the Palace Theatre last June to stellar reviews, unprecedented ticket sales and though many Potter superfans felt let down by some of the story’s inconsistencies with the magical world of the books, for the large majority of audience members it majestically lived up to impossible, formidable hype.

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For those of us lucky to have seen it (still a minority, given the price and demand for tickets) the play’s Oliviers victory reignites the discussion (now somewhat tired, but I’ll rehash it here again) about whether Cursed Child is worthy of such adulation and sensation. Indeed, in Monday’s Radio Times morning meeting, the argument was heated within seconds as one theatre-goer dismissed the play as “overrated”, citing – with reason – an uneven plot and its daunting five-hour runtime, while I, rabid and screeching, feel that neither diminishes The Cursed Child’s achievements.

Without identifying plot details (because part of the production’s allure is that ticket holders enter the theatre completely ignorant so we must, as JK Rowling advises, keep the secrets), criticisms of Cursed Child are generally fair. The narrative isn’t perfect; whether you watched the two parts in consecutive evenings or all in one day, it is extremely long; and for some in the Potter fandom, there are a number of extremely troubling divergences from the magical world of the books, which range from minor inaccuracies to fundamental character betrayals and (abhorrent) breaches of magical law that would send the Wizengamot into a tailspin (the New Statesman’s Anna Leszkiewicz wrote a comprehensive analysis here).

For them, the story felt like fan fiction, Potter pastiche, if you will. But if you are able to dismember your Fan Self from your Critical Self (as I have now forced myself to do to avoid heartbreaking disappointment on a range of cultural topics), suspend disbelief and treat Cursed Child as a standalone addition to the Harry Potter canon, or even merely a standalone piece of theatre, there is surely no denying it deserves every accolade it has received.

Stage performance is the rawest form of storytelling. More than books, film, or television, it is live, breathless, organic, it relies on memory, chemistry, a mutual trust between spectator and performer and a perfect, harmonious coalescence of script, cast, choreography, stage direction, costume, music, and set design. Cursed Child, like no other production this year or in recent memory, swallows its audience whole in an electrifying – a word overused but here appropriate – and dizzying departure from reality. In her review, Radio Times’s Kasia Delgado wrote that “the stagecraft is mind-bogglingly clever and creative”, and said “the dementors will continue to haunt my dreams.” Every aspect of Cursed Child is polished and meticulously considered; its textures are rich, its sounds are clamorous, its dialogue is fresh and stimulating; the play is greater than the sum of its (mostly brilliant) parts. Plot is perhaps the most important part, and while the story would not have worked quite so well in prose, the inventiveness, finesse and synergy of every element of the production elevates Cursed Child into a vivid masterpiece, leaving most of the audience by turns icy with fear, and feverish with delight.

Harry Potter’s appeal, too, will ignite an interest in the theatre for a generation of young people, whose exposure to drama might otherwise have only comprised dogged school productions of Oliver! and Bugsy Malone, ten key Macbeth quotes memorised and dissected ready for a GCSE exam, supported by a class trip to stand and fidget at Shakespeare’s Globe. That is not to say those are not important and sometimes brilliant rites of passage, but they might not do much to inspire a young person, or convince them that the stage and West End aren’t merely the preserve of the intelligentsia.

Tickets to Cursed Child are not cheap and not easy to come by, but families have saved, queued, paid, and made the pilgrimage from across the country to be transported by the production. If they feel it is money well spent, that it is a treat that transcends luvvies and families from the Home Counties, it should be a point of pride for all of those working in the arts. The play showcases the very best of what London’s theatre can be: it is intelligent but never superior, exciting and action-filled enough to still even the twitchiest of children for most of its marathon length, and challenges the audience with its thrills, plot twists and visual trickery. If one 10-year-old gets the train home to Stoke giddy with joy, with a parent equally satisfied, unable to keep up with the fusillade of their child’s questions and opinions, then Cursed Child has done its simplest jobs of entertainment and stimulation. If that parent leaves London feeling valued by the West End’s artistic directors – without a degree in Classics or a subscription to The Stage –even better.

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In a spectacular year for the Oliviers – with must-see productions like Groundhog Day, Yerma, The Red Shoes and Dreamgirls all winning multiple awards – it is the broad phenomenon of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that is a landmark, and has the power to transform the climate and clientele of West End theatre for years to come.