Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ Palace Theatre: The Stories that Stick

SPOILER WARNING: There’s nothing in here about plot (other than generalities,) but I do talk about characters and some of the staging. So if you want to see the play completely cold, buh bye.

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My generation is somewhat lacking in literary phenomena that have left a legacy. Maybe in phenomena at all. Everything has become a quick hit, condensed to 140 characters. I’m not complaining necessarily, but I think it’s true. Yes, there’s Twilight and The Hunger Games, and a whole load of imitations, all of which have appealed to their target audiences and the publishers’ bank accounts. But have they left a legacy? One that ensures subsequent generations exposure to the story?

I doubt it. Harry Potter seems to me the only story that has left a mark, and will continue to do so, most demonstrably in the two-part play that forms the eighth chapter of the Harry Potter narrative, currently sold out a year in advance in an enormous 1400 seat theatre in the West End. It manages – in an age of short attention spans – to enthral its audience for almost 6 hours over a day, or over two separate nights if preferable. It is a story of epic scope, size, ambition… a whole 10 years (or thereabouts) after the last novel was published; ample time for hype to subside and for Harry Potter to be left on the shelf.

Except that is not what happened. A new generation has arrived in the gap, one that is either unaware of Potter, or has been introduced to the books and/or movies by older siblings, parents etcetera, with the luxury of seven whole novels to devour in quick succession. I still haven’t forgiven my Dad for not letting me go to the midnight release of Deathly Hallows.

There is a double effect then; there is new material for the old guard to sink their teeth into, and a brand new introduction to the wizarding world, in a new medium, for a new generation. No wonder they wanted to produce it, and no wonder its sold out.

Strangely, and as is oft mentioned and criticised, Harry Potter is the metaphor we jump to in order to understand the current political landscape. Trump = Voldemort is a familiar trend in political commentary. It is a language generally understood; even those not overly familiar with Potter, such is the depth of its cultural penetration. We cannot shake it, it is ingrained, much to some people’s annoyance. It is the vocabulary we reach for automatically; this story of a boy wizard and his amazing school. It’s childlike. It’s simplistic. But it makes perfect sense.

Which is interesting, because this generational conflict is exactly what Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes as its starting point. The generation of Albus Severus Potter and his contemporaries Rose Granger-Weasley and Scorpius Malfoy never knew the wizarding wars, they never saw the cost and as such take their peace for granted. Their parents’ generation, veterans, fought for it. They are battle scarred, traumatised, even nineteen years later. Harry in particular seems to be dealing with some form of PTSD, or at least chronic guilt. Hermione is Minister for Magic (quite right too,) Ginny the editor of the Daily Prophet’s sports pages. Ron is still determined to lighten the mood, having in parttaken over Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. They’ve had to get on with it, no matter how many times Ginny is woken in the night by Harry’s nightmares.

The new generation is clueless. Time is theirs to mess with, prophecy is malleable. They completely lack understanding, are naïve, arguably ungrateful and arrogant. Simultaneously, Harry and Draco are desperately trying (and failing) to understand their sons, so different and unknowable to them. They force them into roles that they cannot fit in, berating them for being other than they seem. The whole thing is a mess, and more importantly, it’s not exactly anyone’s fault. There’s no apparent solution, so eventually something has to give.

Harry Potter himself, is what gives. When he says the unforgivable to Albus, and essentially forces Albus’ hand, who runs away. The play revolves around an incident in the fourth Harry Potter book, Goblet of Fire, incited by Albus and Scorpius. The plot definitely requires several imaginative leaps, some things don’t totally make sense, but the cast is good enough that you can buy it. The writing is perhaps not as well-wrought as it could be.

The production’s masterstroke is in its theatricality. Insightful, right? What I mean, is that this could have been a splashy, tech driven show with no regard for the form or the content. John Tiffany rejects this outright, and while the magic and the effects are striking, much of the play unfolds through rough theatre, with everything seemingly taking place within King’s Cross Station. But the line between the theatrical and the magic is left blurred; some wires are hidden, others are not. The floo network is realised, as is polyjuice potion (audible gasps from the audience,) a Dementor flies up to the balcony, but a train chase is brought to life with the help of a lot of suitcases, there’s trapdoors, and sleight of hand, actors carrying frames play portraits, the forbidden forest is represented with railway arches. Laid over the top of this is Neil Austin’s gorgeous lighting and Finn Ross’ video, often unnoticeable, never attention drawing, bar the occasional coup. The production itself is wrestling between the ancient and the modern, the generation gaps.

And it is very much a play. I was reminded of the structure of King Lear, the same basic story twice: the A plot with the powerful people (Lear and his daughters,) and the B plot with the less powerful people (Gloucester and his sons.) It is so in this: the A plot is Harry/Ron/Hermione and the B plot is Albus/Scorpius, both unable to deal with the past. And as happens in Shakespeare, the strands collide, the powerful invading the space of the less-so. The play is in this tradition, and embraces it.

One of the great delights of the play is being reminded who the characters are exactly, particularly as I haven’t read the novels in quite some time. A fault of the movies is the subjugation of the wackier characterisations from the novels, with everything being filtered through a sort of bored-teenager acting. With this play you are in no doubt as to why Harry fell in love with Ginny and why Hermione and Ron are so brilliant as a couple, in a way the movies did not or were not capable of conveying. These aspects also give the actors chance to run a bit wild (Anthony Boyle’s neurotic Scorpius is hilariously excessive,) proving again why the theatrical medium is so crucial to this story in particular.

One of the things I had taken for granted, is that although it has been years since I read the whole novel series, I still care deeply about the characters. There is a moment in the second play when someone shouts “Shame on you Hermione Granger,” and I had a visceral response. I actually got angry. Which is ridiculous, I admit, but I couldn’t help myself. Time stretches on and yet characters like this, that seemed so real when I was younger, have stuck somewhere at the back of my head. Seeing them at human scale, in the same room as me, was a very strange experience.

When I went in, I didn’t expect high art – whatever that is. I wanted to be enthralled and absorbed back into the world I knew so well when I was younger, and that clearly had got stuck somewhere. If you’re willing to make the leaps, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is more than willing to catch you.

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