‘Unambiguously a triumph’: Alison Croggon on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
I still remember first reading Harry Potter. When The Chamber of Secrets was published, an old friend told me that she had bought these books for her son, who had subsequently vanished into his bedroom for the entire weekend. I went out and bought the two books for my own son, who was then about ten, for Christmas.
Being a bad parent, I read them first. In fact, I couldn’t put them down: they were immediately irresistible. I too disappeared into my bedroom, and perfected the art of sweeping the books under the pillow when an errant child appeared. But even given that, I wouldn’t have expected – nobody could have expected – that these books would become a billion dollar industry, a gold plated franchise that would change publishing itself.
After that, along with millions of other families, Harry Potter and his adventures became part of our biography. My kids grew up with Harry Potter: my oldest son Josh looked so much like him as an 11-year-old that wherever we went small children would point and shout “Harry Potter!” We read all the books, even as they bloated and swelled, and we saw every movie. But in that first reading, before Harry Potter became, well, Harry Potter, there was simply the charm of reading an enjoyable story. Charm, we say, forgetting that charms are about magic.
Two decades later, I headed with Ben, my now adult other son, to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in Melbourne. I’ll be honest: we didn’t have enormous expectations. Although I’m a big fan of durational theatre, the prospect of almost six hours of a plot-driven play was more than a little daunting. And we had seen Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them (only part one, we had no desire to see part two). For us, the magic of Harry Potter now felt shabby and exploitative.
When people talk, as they do, about the class privilege coded into the stories, about how the Harry Potter world is the perfect fantasy for the age of neo-liberalism, I perfectly see their point. But we knew there would be lots of bling, and we both enjoy bling. And hey, nostalgia isn’t all bad: so many family memories are tied up with these books. So off we went, excited by the event, delighted to see the Princess Theatre given a complete Hogwarts makeover, but more than a little sceptical.
At the interval of the first play we emerged and raised our eyebrows at each other. “It’s…pretty good,” said Ben. “It is…!” said I. At the end of Part One (we did it all on a single day) we took ourselves out for drinks and dumplings. “Part Two had better be good,” I said. “We’ve got expectations now.” When we re-entered the theatre, we heard the people behind us having exactly the same conversation. In fact, the audience vibe felt completely different for Part Two: much louder, much more excited. By interval, we were true believers. And we went home shaking our heads.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is unambiguously a triumph. It includes some of the best staging I’ve seen, a remarkably stylish design and some fantastic performances. It’s a massive production that has pulled together all the talent that money can buy and, for once, the hype is justified. The millions that went into developing this show were spent wisely and well, and the thousands of Harry Potter tragics who scrimp and save to see this new realisation of the Hogwarts universe will find their expectations richly exceeded. There were a couple of them sitting next to us, teenage boys in Hogwarts cloaks who confessed they were hardcore fans, and they were ecstatic.
For once, and not just because of the #keepthesecrets badges handed out at the end, I find myself wanting to avoid spoilers. It was enormously enjoyable watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with no idea of what was going to happen. Those who have read the play already will know the plot, but I didn’t. Jack Thorne’s play isn’t a particularly great text, but it’s a faithful rendering of this world, complete with its humour, and it gets the job done, which is no little thing for a story this complicated. But the real brilliance lies in the production itself.
What surprised me most of all was that director John Tiffany has decided to make theatre. The default mode for massive commercial productions is, after all, the musical (it was such a relief that it wasn’t a musical). To mount a play – and not just a play, but two long plays with intervals – would have been a risk even for a guaranteed franchise like Harry Potter. To pull it off by exploiting old-fashioned conventions – theatrical smoke, some brilliant black puppetry and magic, a simple, flexible but immensely sophisticated design and high quality performances – is remarkable.
The dramaturgy is faultless and the stage craft perfectly judged, restrained where it needs to be, excessive where it’s appropriate. The action is punctuated by some extremely effective movement theatre which, like the hardworking stage hands, makes full use of the flourishing of cloaks. It’s accompanied by Imogen Heap’s driving score (no familiar HP tinkling, this is all new). There was no point in all those hours when either of us found ourselves shifting in our seats or glancing at the time.
It’s very cleverly cast, and brought home by strong performances. Paula Arundell as Hermione Grainger is superb casting, and with Tom Wren as Draco Malfoy, she is probably the lynchpin holding the cast together. Sean Rees-Wemyss is the unhappy misfit Albus Potter, crushed by the fame of his father, who befriends fellow misfit Scorpius Malfoy (William McKenna). It’s hard to believe this is McKenna’s stage debut, because he’s a standout: vulnerable, wry and funny. And there are some excellent surprise appearances, notably from Gillian Cosgriff (no character name, because spoilers).
Beneath the sheer scale of this enterprise, the creative team never loses sight of the simple heart of the story, which is essentially about the conflicted love that can exist between parents and children, with subtexts exploring how the expectations of masculinity undermine and destroy male relationships, and the ongoing effects of childhood trauma. As the emotions build, which they do, it becomes genuinely moving.
For me, this show conjured the moment I opened The Philosopher’s Stone and read “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Although this is a new story, it feels much closer to the books than the films do, as if it’s freshly touched some original nerve of enchantment. The tickets cost a fortune, but I can genuinely say that what is offered in return is worth every cent.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by Jack Thorne from an original story by JK Rowling. Directed by John Tiffany, set design by Christine Jones, costume design by Katrina Lindsay, composition and arrangements by Imogen Heap, lighting design by Neil Austin, sound design by Gareth Fry, illusions and magic by Jamie Harrison. Sonia Friedman Productions, Colin Callender and Harry Potter Theatrical Productions. Princess Theatre. Bookings
Wheelchair and disabled bookings must be made directly with the Princess Theatre Box Office on (03) 9299 9800. Wheelchair access is only available in the stalls. Disabled access is from Spring Street entrance (1 step). A ramp is positioned for wheelchair access. Hearing Impairments: There is a hearing loop within the Princess Theatre. Either headsets or a neck loops (for those with a T-switch) can be obtained from the cloak room.