For 14 year old Gully Thompson, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is merely an exercise in nostalgia and visual dazzle
Harry Potter is undeniably the juggernaut of children’s pop culture. The series is virtually unmatched in its magnitude of popularity in books, film and merchandising. And as a 14-year-old, I have been inevitably exposed to this franchise.
While I’m not a massive “pothead” (there’s got to be a better name than that) I can say that I definitely appreciate what this series has to offer. J. K. Rowling has an obvious talent for world-building, captivating narrative and creating characters. The scope of the Wizarding World is what I believe to be the series’ greatest achievement. Even sceptical readers of fantasy can’t deny that the breadth of description and set pieces in the Potter series match anything in conventional pop culture.
I was surprised when I saw that the series was to be continued on stage, in a play written by Jack Thorne from an idea by Rowling. I understand the cry for a sequel to respond to the questions left by the final novel, but it still seemed almost unnecessary. This is not a jab at sequels or reboots; it’s an acknowledgement that, while the final book had some elements of ambiguity, it was still an emotionally conclusive end to the series. Yet the question still bothered me, before and after seeing this play: why is this sequel a piece of theatre? Better still, is this theatre at all?
I am not nearly as dedicated as members of the hardcore fanbase. I know that I have less emotional connection to the series than many others. This, of course, means that this play will be more effective to a majority of the audience than me. I want to acknowledge that, while I see many flaws, there are many good things that dedicated fans will appreciate.
I chiefly noticed, not too far in, that it was a significant departure from the Harry Potter franchise – and that that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Harry Potter is not only a fantasy: it’s also an intriguing mystery series and a coming-of-age story. Harry Potter works because the world is intricate and the genres are blended to make the story compelling and interesting. The characters have excellent chemistry, and develop and grow as the series progresses. This play… doesn’t do that.
‘Yet the question still bothered me, before and after seeing this play; why is this sequel a piece of theatre? Better still, is this theatre at all?’
For me, this is simply a fantasy story, and not a particularly interesting one at that. The chemistry that was shared between Harry, Ron and Hermione and the multitude of other characters in The Cursed Child isn’t nearly as prominent and effective as in the books or films.
This story focuses on Harry Potter and company, 19 years after their adventures at Hogwarts. Their children are now entering the wizarding school, and feature as the main characters. Without giving too much away, time travel is used by the children to alter a plot point that deeply affects a side character in the Harry Potter universe. And that’s essentially it.
It seems to me that the play is mainly constructed to relive classic moments in the franchise. Which raises the question; is this really a continuation of Harry Potter at all?
For me, this isn’t a Harry Potter story. If it were, it wouldn’t be so reliant on the franchise that came before it. Without the previous seven stories, the play’s lore wouldn’t make sense; I felt that we were left with a play that simply doesn’t work as it should. It is dependent on reliving the previous stories, and less so building upon them. It’s not so much a new story in the Harry Potter world as a “clip show”.
Granted, reusing moments from previous instalments in the series is effective and often fun. I don’t want to sound snobbish about the play and Harry Potter itself, as though I’m suggesting that they are not “high-class literature”, because this is a book series I genuinely enjoy. However, the way these relived moments are executed make the play come off as cheap.
One of the brilliant things about Rowling’s series is that every novel builds upon the world. This play really brings nothing new to the table. Yes, it does bring new challenges, and new attributes to our characters – being grown up and beset with the responsibilities of parenting and the adult world – but once these changes are accepted by the audience, they simply sink back into the world of Hogwarts as if nothing much has changed. In a way, the world becomes more distant because it lacks the magic and energy in which we were enveloped in the previous instalments. It has been constructed to profit from nostalgia.
‘One of my favourite things about theatre is that it has an intimacy that many other forms of entertainment can’t achieve.’
Of course, there are good qualities. The progressive casting is rich in diversity, and that is commendable in such a hugely popular series. And then, of course, there are the effects. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is big. It’s expensive. And the money has been used well; some of the effects and set pieces in this production are astounding. It’s easy to see how people describe this show as spellbinding, because it is a visual feast. I cannot deny that those who have created the set design, effects and choreography deserve praise. But my problem with this grandiose display is that the show is reliant on these effects for it to work.
Talking to friends and others who’ve seen the show, I realised that for many people, this is the first (and possibly, for some, the only) time they’ve seen theatre. And while I am happy that many people are being introduced to the world of theatre through a series that they love, I’m not sure that, as an introduction to the form, it represents theatre’s best qualities.
One of my favourite things about theatre is that it has an intimacy that many other forms of entertainment can’t achieve. I love the warm sense of people performing their lives, performing their realities, metres away from you, I love how that brings you into the world of the story. But Harry Potter and the Cursed Child does not feel warm to me. Aside from a few sparse moments of audience interaction, there is a distinct disconnection between audience and actor.
So, again, why theatre? Why set the eighth Harry Potter story on the stage? We may as well ask, why adapt these books into films? To convince us that the magic is real. Why perform the world of Harry Potter on stage? To convince us that the magic is real. But the stage is a gimmick in this play, designed for effects and visual trickery that show that the world of Harry Potter is dazzling and amazing.
But we already know this. The imagination in these books, the imagination used while reading these books, is not a gimmick. It’s a celebration of the astounding, of the boundlessness of the human mind. When it comes down to it, the major reason why this play doesn’t work as the eighth Harry Potter story is that it lacks the fundamental trait of the series. Magic.
Further reading: Alison Croggon’s review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
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.