For the Harry Potter generation, the idea of a play about Hogwarts is irresistible. They’re the kids, now in their 20s, who queued for hours to get their hands on JK Rowling’s latest instalment, who spent break times obsessing about the plot, who loved the books before the films even existed. They’re the original fans.
So delving into the world of Harry, Ron and Hermione is like reaching back into childhood when the buzz about This Book About a Kid Who Discovers He’s a Wizard first began. All across Britain, 90s kids let their Tamagotchies starve while they devoured Rowing’s novels. It was a magical time.
Yet as one of those HP-Gen millenials, I felt a surprising pang of panic about ten minutes into Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is set 19 years after the final book where Harry, Ron and Hermione are adults with children, jobs and adult lives.
In the theatre I was light-headed with excitement – Harry as a dad! Hermione Minister for Magic! – but also suddenly unnerved that the comforting conclusion of Harry Potter was now being unpicked.
The final book, The Deathly Hallows, had ended with the line “all was well” which, while vague, left readers free to imagine that it really was – and deep down we all like a happy ending, especially for our beloved Boy Who Lived. But I was worried that The Cursed Child, created by Rowling, playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, would dull that sense of closure by reaching into a future where the threat of Voldemort has returned and all is not entirely well.
However, that concern soon faded as the play unfurled into something genuinely spectacular – and even with two parts of over two and a half hours each, I wasn’t bored.
The stagecraft is mind-bogglingly clever and creative and the audience gasped and clapped as characters vanished through Platform 9 3/4, sweets made ears smoke, props were whooshed away under cloaks and broomsticks levitated above the ground. The most vivid elements of Rowling’s novels – the Hogwarts Express, the Great Hall, the Sorting Hat – lose none of their magic when re-created on stage because every single detail has clearly been laboriously obsessed over.
Talking books? Yep. Centaurs in the forest? Yep. Patronus spells? Those too. And the dementors will continue to haunt my dreams for a good while yet – as will lots of other things I won’t spoil for you. Neither I nor my friend had the faintest inkling of how they did 98 per cent of what we saw during the four hours and 35 minutes of production.
The stunning stage-craft is made even more mystical by the music composed and arranged by English singer-songwriter Imogen Heap. Her dream-like, light-synthy harmonies appropriately leave you feeling like you’re under some kind of spell.
And, of course, it’s thrilling to see Harry, Ron and Hermione’s grown-up lives. It’s like meeting up with old friends – they’re familiar yet different. The tight trio have, thankfully, remained a tight trio and share plenty of in-jokes about scars, red hair and know-it-alls which are funny and full of nostalgia. Jamie Parker is just as I imagined Harry from the books – a bit angsty, serious and good-hearted – and Paul Thornley’s Ron is brilliant as a jokey, chaotic stay-at-home dad Ron whose wife Hermione (the excellent Noma Dumezweni) is Minister for Magic, the top job in the British wizarding world. There are also several spine-frazzling moments when familiar Hogwarts characters pop up and leave you feeling like you’re 10 years old all over again.
But the real stand-out characters and actors in The Cursed Child are Harry’s son Albus Severus Potter (Sam Clemmett) and his unlikely best friend Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle) who are at the centre of the storyline about time-turners, alternative realities and the dark arts. They’re the oddball duo, sons of enemies Harry and Draco, who keep the otherwise rather contrived, slightly underwhelming plot interesting with their needle-sharp rapport.
The time-turner narrative that fuels the action may feel like cheesy Harry Potter fan fiction but that doesn’t make the overall storyline any less poignant. The really moving bits are about Harry’s tricky relationship with his son Albus who struggles having such a famous dad and feels burdened by the Potter name – and Harry’s own demons as he’s weighed down by guilt, fear for his children’s future, and his own nightmarish childhood under the stairs. That’s what I, as part of the HP-Gen, really wanted – an insight into Harry’s mind in the future, an idea of what sort of person he became, what kind of children he had. And for all the spells and magic, it’s a glaringly realistic look at parenthood.
It’s hard to know what exactly Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany intended with this play – but it feels like a thoughtful tribute to Harry Potter rather than an extension of the Hogwarts world. If you go to the Palace Theatre hoping for explanations of plot mysteries in the books and exciting revelations about characters’ pasts, you might be left disappointed. The Cursed Child doesn’t add huge amounts to the Potter universe but is more a magical, memorable ode to a series of books which made the literary lives of 90s kids so sensational.
18 years after I first read Harry Potter, I am left with the same lingering sense of wonder; the electrifying atmosphere of The Cursed Child is still dancing through my limbs. The plot may not be perfect but it’s a wonderfully creative play and a worthy accompaniment to JK Rowling’s original creation.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is at the Palace Theatre. For information about tickets, see here.