‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ on Broadway Is a Stunning, Magical Tour de Force
The Daily Beast
April 22, 2018
With Katie Baker
Tim Teeman: Harry Potter is on Broadway! As a Potter newbie, I was wondering how much I would ‘get,’ and how much I wouldn’t. But you can really go to this as not a fan and still have a very enjoyable time at the theatre. Of course, being a fan means you get all the ‘greatest hits’ of returning characters and plot points and references only a fan would know.
Well, whoever you are, you get around five hours of really astonishing on-stage magic—overseen by Jamie Harrison—alongside some well-drawn paternally-themed and past-tragedy drama. The Cursed Child is split into two parts: You can watch both on one day, as we did, or break the two parts up however you choose.
The visual effects are fabulous too, particularly when it comes to the Dementors, and a standout visual piece of genius (Neil Austin, and video designers Finn Ross and Ash Woodward are responsible for these thrills), which engulfs the whole theatre.
Even before you see the stage, you see the special carpeting and dragon sconces—what Michael Paulson captured in his New York Times report of the $68 million refit the theatre has had to Potter-ize itself.
Katie Baker: One of the most touching parts of the show was watching the intense reaction of the audience to their favorite characters. Our fellow theater-goers burst into rapturous applause at the appearance of Harry, and Hagrid, and Hermione (and a few others I won’t reveal).
The first few times it happened, I found it to be a little silly—even as a Harry Potter superfan myself—but as the show went on, it moved me. We’ve missed these characters so much, you see. And getting a chance to spend time with them again, even if only for a few hours, it was a special thing.
Tim: The wording is very particular in the program about how all this came to be: ‘Based on an Original New Story By J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany; a new play by Jack Thorne.’ For non-fans, the program also contains a handy guide to Potter-world.
We don’t want to ruin anything for people, but we can say that time has moved on, and on stage we have Harry, now a dad himself played by Jamie Parker, with a son called Albus (Sam Clemmett). Draco Malfoy (Alex Price) is here, as is his son Scorpius (Anthony Boyle). Hogwarts is present and correct. And what takes shape is a time-traveling story, which sees all the characters caught up in it, its roots the roots of Harry’s story itself. How did the story work for a super-fan, Katie? Is it a warm bath of familiarity, or does it move things forward intriguingly? Does it change anything shockingly? Does it take any liberties?
Katie: Since the show is Harry Potter apocrypha, not original canon, it definitely errs on the side of ‘warm bath of familiarity.’ There is one big twist (involving Voldemort, of course) but Thorne doesn’t make any moves that will outrage fans. The characters are true to themselves—perhaps rendered with less moral complexity than in the books, but written very well—and the plot feels like a natural extension of Potterdom.
But this conservatism makes sense. Rowling, who helped chart the plot of the play, finds herself in the blessed-yet-bedeviled position of having created something so wildly beloved and popular that any changes to the character’s fates are risky.
So the play is constantly walking this tightrope of wanting to advance the Potter legend, but in a way that is extremely faithful to the original story. It ends up relying on that original story quite heavily (in particular, the events of the Triwizard Tournament and the Battle of Hogwarts).
In a way, the play is a bit like Albus Potter himself—he wants to strike out on his own but the reality is, he’s always going to be the child of an extremely famous parent who changed the world. By the end of the play, you no longer mind its constraints—particularly because it’s just so much fun.
Tim: It really is. I wouldn’t have minded if the plot wasn’t so time-travel dependent, but they have so much fun with it, and take us along for the wild ride, it doesn’t feel too much of a scripted scratched record. The visual magic and stunning direction, by Tiffany (truly, how did that actor just get over there, you think; they were just standing there!), is offset by the more psychological emphasis on frayed relations of parents and children, the impact of Harry’s fame, grief, time, and trauma.
Parker as Harry is in a permanent state of mop-the-brow crisis. The children are brilliant: funny, as they confront the insane twists of the plot, and serious and moving as they deal with friendship and the different shadows of the past. What did you think of the characters and stories around them—as a fan, do they scan brilliantly or come up short in any way, Katie?
Katie: First off, the acting in the show is sublime. The actors have to hold their own not only against Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and the great Dame Maggie Smith from the movies, but they have to live up to the legend of Harry Potter in our heads.
They do it expertly. It helps that Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny are all adults now, and that Albus and Scorpius are new characters. But watching them, I wasn’t thinking, “This is a Broadway actor playing Harry Potter.” Jamie Parker is Harry—you instantly buy it.
Also the sheer amount of energy that it takes to put on this production is incredible, but you never get a sense of fatigue from the stage. Their timing and delivery of humorous lines, and their way with physical comedy—especially in one scene involving Polyjuice Potion—is really brilliant. And a special shout-out to Anthony Boyle as Scorpius. As the lovably awkward super-nerd who has to grapple with his family’s Death Eater legacy, and whose friendship with Albus forms the tender heart of the play, he steals the show.
Tim: The staging—Christine Jones’ design, Neil Austin’s lighting, Gareth Fry’s sound, Ross and Woodward’s video—is so clever and inventive. There are clocks spinning, pools of water, and a brilliant ensemble, too, who dance and fight and weave among the principals. Stage-hands come in and swoosh capes dramatically at scene-change time. That should look ridiculous, but somehow it doesn’t.
Steven Hoggett, Tiffany’s longtime friend and collaborator and this production’s movement director, oversees a feast of different paces and feelings within scenes. The physicality of the performances—bodies suddenly disappearing or even diminishing, the military marching in one scene—is notable (that marching reminded me of their stunning Black Watch). How redolent was the staging for you, Katie? Did you feel you were back in Potter-world?
Katie: Absolutely. The staging is true magic. The creators are up against incredible challenges to recreate the effects of spells and potions, of Floo Powder and Time-Turners and Invisibility Cloaks, with no Hollywood CGI to help them out. And they succeed wildly.
I have no idea how they achieved most of their tricks. Without giving too much away, there’s a scene with Dementors that is unforgettable and another with a Patronus that is stunning in its quiet beauty. Actors get hit with spells and go flying across the room; they dial the Ministry of Magic’s phone booth and get whisked away with impossible speed; they are chewed up and spit out by a cursed bookcase.
Hogwarts is present, as is the Forbidden Forest, and Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station. It’s everything a Potter fan could wish for—OK, no Gringotts, but the goblins will have to wait for their own play.
Tim: Some performances really stood out for me: as you said, Anthony Boyle as Scorpius just perfectly captured an irreverent teenager’s “don’t care”-ness, and then his spurts of bravery too, and also his need to be loved and show love, which he does with Albus.
This all goes back to his more tortured relationship with Draco, which both he and Price bring a moving edge to. Noma Dumezweni as Hermione has both a stern, unshakeable command and also a mischief to her. Paul Thornley is the total Ron Weasley—he just wants to muck about, but his love for his friends and Hermione is undimmed. And then, of course, were other returning favorites…
Katie: Agh, it’s so hard to talk about the cameos without spoilers! This is going to sound cryptic, but the audience’s biggest reactions came from the appearances of one mega-villain from the books and two beloved members of the Order of the Phoenix.
There’s also a particular ghost who pops up for a scene in one of the show’s most memorable performances. Draco Malfoy is a softer, more conciliatory character here than at the end of Book 7—much to Ron’s suspicion.
Tim: I was also struck by some of the wider themes in the play. Again, no spoilers, but Voldemort and his followers are very much imagined as fascists, in dress, symbol, and in terms of the kind of ethnic cleansing they want to oversee (Rowling herself has spoken about these themes in the books before). Towards the end of the play, the characters must confront the root of this evil in the play’s moment of supreme trauma.
It seems the message here—and what is vital to Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany—is that we must confront, very literally, these cultural and political demons. That we cannot turn away. That we must never forget what the Nazis did and set out to do in World War Two, or what the aims of authoritarianism remain now, today; especially now—however traumatizing it is—the play suggests we need to stare authoritarianism and fascism in its face, stare it down. Only by confronting can we begin to comprehend and combat it, and survive, and heal, and make some kind of better world.
Katie: What has always struck me about the books is the very humble and true and pure decency of her heroic characters. They stand up to evil not because they want glory and valor, but because someone has to do it. They take a stand at great cost to themselves and their loved ones. And that ethos is intact here in the play, too.
Obviously, we’re living in a moment where the Death Eaters’ desire to oppress and eradicate Muggles and “Mudbloods” takes on disturbing parallels with current Neo-Fascist stirrings. We’re also living in a moment of bitter partisanship and Twitter sniping—of political, celebrity, and tech cultures that pander to, cultivate, and inflame everyone’s baser, more hateful instincts. It’s a balm, however bittersweet, to get to spend five hours away from all of that, in Rowling’s world, where she gently reminds us of the better angels of our natures.
At one pivotal point in the play, Ron notes, “We have to be better than them. It’s annoying, but that’s what we were taught.” The audience laughs knowingly, and maybe a little grimly. And we don’t want the play to end. At least on the outside, we may not have Time-Turners, but we’ll still have J.K. Rowling’s Tweetstorms—and maybe Hermione 2020?