The best thing about the eighth Harry Potter adventure is the staging, followed by the acting; the worst thing about it is the plot. This explains why almost all the newspaper reviews of the play are glowing—and why "some Harry Potter fans are so disappointed with the new story that they're refusing to call it canon." Many of the professional theatre critics who liked the play admit in their reviews that they had no idea what was going on in Cursed Child, and had to rely on children they'd brought along to explain why the rest of the audience were gasping as familiar character names were mentioned in unexpected contexts. In other words, they didn't really care about the implications of what was happening. In other words, they weren't Real Fans.
I actually don't consider myself a real Harry Potter fan any more. I used to own two wands and write Remus/Sirius fanfiction; now I don't. But by any normal metrics I probably am a Real Fan. I tell you this firstly as a warning (that's the kind of analysis you're likely to read, here) and secondly to explain why—like J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany—I've split my product into two parts: this first part is the non-spoilery section of the review. It's short—because (as an ex-ish fan) I wouldn't have wanted to know much, if anything, about what I was going to see before I saw it.
And the play is worth seeing. It's not accurate to say, "critics loved it; fans hated it." On Twitter you can see that theatregoers dressed as Hufflepuffs loved the play, too. I liked the play, too. The fact is, those Hufflepuffs and those critics were consuming a completely different piece of media to the version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child most people have seen—that is, read—so far. The playscript book that was released on Harry Potter and the author's shared birthday (July 31st) only slenderly represents the experience of what was always supposed to be a piece of dramatic theatre. (Everyone else seems to have spotted this too.) Consequently, and to echo my opening line, the book also represents only the worst part of the theatrical experience.
This is a massive problem for the global Harry Potter fandom, most of whom won't get to "see" Cursed Child until it's released on DVD. There are stories of Cursed Child tickets being re-sold online for thousands of pounds. Even the tickets you buy at the box office are more than the price of a hardback (returns are sold Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday ). They are reasonably priced for London theatre (the best seat at London's The Book of Mormon is a whopping £239.75, which is twice as much as the best seat at Cursed Child for half the duration); if you like a gamble, you can even play the Friday 40, where at 1pm every Friday they release forty pairs of tickets for £30 a pair, online. But however you slice it, theatre is still out of many people's price range—even before you add on a plane or train fare. I'm fortunate enough to work twenty metres away from the Palace Theatre, where the play is being staged, right in the heart of London's theatreland, but for some who want to see Cursed Child it's a plane fare, plus the ticket price—if you can get tickets.
Low odds aside, the logistics of getting to London aside (and here we actually kick into review mode), the play is a good piece of theatre. You can clearly see all that money being put to use on the stage. Cursed Child has been (in my opinion rightly) compared to Trevor Nunn's two-part, nine-hour-long The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1980). In both Nickleby and Cursed Child, a slightly duff story becomes extraordinary through top-quality acting, a clever script of interlocking family dramas, and inspired staging. If you can't get to Cursed Child, consider the Nickleby DVDs as a good immediate substitute.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child picks up from the much-derided epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007). Indeed the first scene is a literal restaging ("you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts" etc.) of the epilogue that keeps going after the book closed with the line "All was well." This is a simple but nice trick—it establishes that these new actors (who don't look much like Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson in ageing make-up) are the "real" Harry, Ron, and Hermione by giving them words we already know belong to those characters. It also locates the play in time, and sets up the chief relationship that will drive it—Harry's with his son, Albus Severus Potter. The rest of the play follows Harry and friends, and Albus and friends, with airtime split roughly equally between the two groups.
Because it's a play rather than a photo-realistic film, it's possible for fourteen-year-old Albus (eleven in the first scene) to be played by Sam Clemmett, an actor in his mid-twenties. The magic of the theatre allows for this, just as it allows for there only really to be one set (but what a set!). The other Hogwarts-age children (with the exception of Harry's daughter Lily, and one other character) are also played by young adults. This means that, unlike most child actors, they are good at acting. This means the dramatic scenes repeatedly hit home in a way they often didn't in the films. The papers have made a big thing of Anthony Boyle as Scorpius, so I will also admit here, even in this spoiler-free section, that Scorpius Malfoy is a major character, a fan favourite, and that he's highly likeable, though the "adults" are slightly more compelling for my money.
To be honest, at this stage in my life Jamie Parker (Harry Potter) is almost as big of a lure for me as the Potter name. I've followed his career since he originated the role of Scripps in Alan Bennett's History Boys at the National Theatre, a performance only bettered perhaps by his Hal/Henry V at the Globe. He's fantastic here as Harry Potter, bringing all the charm, humour, power, and vulnerability of Shakespeare's hero to this other Harry, who might otherwise (spoilers?) almost be an unsympathetic character despite our existing loyalty to him. Parker's Potter is also a very plausible evolution of the Harry of the books.
Power is also the word I would apply to Noma Dumezweni's Hermione, who is an almost regal presence in deep purple. She is strong and commanding, and complements her easygoing husband (an also-excellent Paul Thornley as Ron). She is so self-assured now that it is in some ways difficult to see the girl she was—but I don't think that's bad characterisation; I think that's good characterisation. This person was always inside her. She grew strong outside of the school environment, away from bullies like Draco Malfoy, free from the threat of Voldemort, and supported by the love of her husband. Indeed, she and Ron bicker and support each other and are passionately invested in one another even after nineteen-plus years together. Perhaps this is another spoiler, but, despite reports a few years ago that J. K. regretted pairing up Ron and Hermione, there is absolutely no sign of it here. The play pushes their romance in a way even the books never did—it's shown to be big and epic, as well as small and homey. They reassert their love for each other on several occasions.
There isn't a wrong note amongst the rest of the cast either—they're all strong, and where they represent familiar characters they do it well. Interestingly, everyone pronounces the Dark Lord's name with a soft T (Vol-de-mor), as the author apparently intended.
Director John Tiffany and his crew have done a fantastic job. The effects are excellent—and I agree with the Hollywood Reporter, which points out that "the medium of [theater] is a better fit for the material than film, because in a [theater] magic tricks really look, well, magical." People applauded at effects with genuine surprise and delight.
The play is beautifully choreographed—even a change of scene is effected with a swirl of cloaks, as though props are disappearing rather than being wheeled off. The costumes also play into the magic, with characters able to switch instantly from one set to another after passing through Platform 9 ¾. The Hogwarts school uniform has had a makeover since the films (single-colour house jumpers are presumably more visible across a darkened auditorium than a single stripe around the collar) but remains recognisable. Harry has become a man who wears a waistcoat (adorable). Perhaps the only negative on the costume front is Ginny Potter, who edits the Daily Prophet's sport pages, but dresses like "a mum"—strongly influenced by her own mother perhaps. (She also has a completely different, much posher accent than her brother Ron—but he's a boy. I can see how it happened.)
Overall, the play is entertaining and, thematically and on a character level, it works. It's effective—I laughed, I was moved, I was excited about Harry Potter again. If Strange Horizons were the sort of publication that gave things stars out of five I'd probably give it a three or a four, but both feel wrong—an attempt to balance the excessive love with the excessive dislike that I haven't even told you about yet.
I recommend you try and see the show, if you can. Disgustingly, I'll be going again.
The best thing about the eighth Harry Potter adventure is the staging, followed by the acting; the worst thing about it is the plot.
There's a very famous piece of fanfiction (so famous that even people who haven't actually read any Potter have heard of it), called "My Immortal." "My Immortal," now widely believed to be a parody of a bad fanfic (as opposed to an actual bad fanfic), features as its lead Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way, a young goth schoolgirl. After experiencing prophetic visions about her destiny, Ebony leaves her relationship with Draco Malfoy (also a goth) and travels back in time to seduce Voldemort in order to stop him being evil.
There are an embarrassing number of similarities between the plot of "My Immortal" (famously bad; so bad people now think it must be a joke) and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—which, you must remember as we go into this section of the review, I actually quite like.
The play also concerns an attempt to change time. Albus Potter (angry with his father and anxious to do something important with his life) is manipulated into stealing a Time-Turner from the office of the Minister for Magic, one Hermione Granger. He brings along his best friend (spoilers!!), Scorpius Malfoy, and a young woman he fancies called Delphi. End Part 1, Act 1. Together they want to go back in time and stop Cedric Diggory from jointly winning the Triwizard Tournament alongside Harry (events depicted in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ): if he doesn't win, Cedric won't be magically transported to the Little Whinging graveyard and murdered on the orders of Lord Voldemort. When Albus and Scorpius finally succeed in their goal after two attempts, Cedric becomes a Death Eater and murders Neville Longbottom, thus ensuring Voldemort's victory in Deathly Hallows' climactic Battle of Hogwarts, and consequently Harry Potter's death. Albus ceases to exist. End Part 1, Act 2.
Part 2 sees Scorpius teaming up with the alternative universe's Snape, Hermione, and Ron to go back in time to stop himself and Albus ruining Cedric's Triwizard chances (like in Back to the Future 2). They succeed and the timeline reverts. But wait! It's too early for a happy ending because Delphi is revealed to be the daughter of Voldemort and his chief lackey Bellatrix Lestrange (yuck). End Part 2, Act 1. Delphi has engineered this entire situation because she loves her dad and wants him back (double yuck). A prophecy from somewhere (origins unclear) has told her Cedric is the key to making this happen. After being foiled again at the third Triwizard task, she goes back to 1981 to stop her dad trying to kill Harry as a baby because she thinks this will ultimately save Voldemort. She's taken the name "the Augurey," which, as well as being another allusion to the prophecy-from-somewhere (Delphic oracle, augury—geddit?), is also, in Potter-land, a large, black, phoenix-like bird. So, to recap: Delphi has inherited Voldemort's alabaster skin and Bellatrix's big hair, and she dresses like a large, black bird. In other words, she dresses as a goth. A canonical main character fancies her. She has special prophetic abilities. And she goes back in time to love Voldemort.
Of course, it is actually technically accurate to call Cursed Child a fanfic, albeit one beta-ed by the original author, as the actual script was written by Jack Thorne, not J. K. (though she clearly had a hand in the story). However, as well as being problematically demeaning to Harry Potter fanfiction ("My Immortal" is bad, not a representative sample), this isn't quite right. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is fanfiction written by someone, or rather three someones, who ain't never read a Harry Potter fanfiction. Jack Thorne seems to be a good playwright—the dialogue is stage-worthy and fun—but there are plenty of continuity errors that would not fly in fandom, and this particular plot would not be written today by anyone who knew about "My Immortal" or Mary Sues, even if they wanted to play up the "sins of the father"/"neglect leads to evil" theme, as I assume Cursed Child does. The first act of Part 2 ends with the reveal of Delphi's identity as Voldemort's daughter, to which Harry responds: "No, no, no. Not that. Anything but that." Well, indeed.
(A quick time out here: I saw this play with a friend who also considers herself to be a Harry Potter fan. She said something along the lines of, "I wish it hadn't happened, but it doesn't bother me that much. What bothers me is that it bothers you." Not all of us are like this, is what I'm saying.)
Voldemort and Bellatrix's pre-battle coupling is also ridiculous rather than dramatic, isn't it? It's silly, as well as actively squicky, because he's an evil snake-man without a nose and she's crazy. Nor can I take seriously the scene in which Harry pretends to be Voldemort to fool Delphi. Other scenes powered by Polyjuice Potion in which Harry and his friends pretend poorly have been funny before now—even the tense Ministry scenes from Deathly Hallows raise a smile, with Ron trying desperately to stop an office filling with water. Perhaps this is supposed to be funny, then, with Harry trying desperately to cover the fact that he's transforming back into himself; but it's also the big confrontation. Is funny appropriate here? I believed Dumbledore when he talked about love being a strong weapon; I can't give the same level of credibility to a flying goth talking to a fake Lord Voldemort.
(Something else that bothers me As A Fan: the whole plot of my favourite of the novels, Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), hinges around a device called a "secret keeper," which enables Harry's parents to live secretly in Godric's Hollow without anyone who doesn't know the "secret" being able to find them. In Cursed Child, everyone and their father can see Lily Potter as she tucks a blanket that will become a plot device around a baby Harry. That shouldn't be possible! Don't you know your Potter-lore? )
Other fans are apparently upset about Cedric's character assassination (fair); Harry's bad parenting (unfair); Ron being used largely for comic effect (fair, perhaps, but it's a good effect and makes sense when you consider he runs a joke shop now); Hermione becoming a cross, cardigan-wearing teacher when deprived of Ron's love (fair-ish); and the non-canonical way Time-Turners are used in the play.
I'm actually not too bothered about this last one (the old Time-Turners were destroyed; this is a new kind)—although on balance I would have appreciated consistency. What I do wish is that Cursed Child had had its own story to tell with time travel, rather than simply revisiting the events of the most popular Harry Potter book. Fan service, perhaps, and understandable if you think of Cursed Child less as a story and more as an event, like the Harry Potter ride at Universal; but I find that disappointing. Harry Potter is big enough, and Rowling is good enough, that we didn't need to bring back Ludo Bagman, and Umbridge, and Cedric Diggory—we'd still like characters we'd never met before (we like Scorpius!). And Voldemort—did it have to be Voldemort again? I know he's the Harry Potter villain, but he's never been very interesting. Despite Dumbledore's efforts at humanisation, Voldy is still barely a person. He's a black-cloaked manifestation of evil (this is part of why it's so unbelievable that he has a daughter). 
Albus and Scorpius literally create their own conflict—they choose to get into trouble and choose to turn back time when it wasn't completely necessary to the history of everything. As Harry says, he "didn't volunteer for adventure"—but his stories were more momentous because of the age he was living in. I also find it interesting that Cursed Child is about Albus and Harry learning to see each other as people, yet a trip to Harry's Triwizard Tournament doesn't give Albus a chance to meet his teenage father. He never sees young Harry at all—and thus never sees how completely unprepared (and non-perfect) Harry was at the age of fourteen, which seems an obvious use of the device: it's what Doctor Who's "Father's Day" did, for example. Instead, he and Harry get past their weirdness with each other because a) Scorpius shouts at Albus and points out that he, Scorpius, had a much worse life, which makes Albus try harder with both Harry and Scorpius; and b) Ginny shouts at Harry and eventually he realises he has to be vulnerable and admit his mistakes to Albus. The two of them talk it out. It's quite moving.
So it's an old trick, of course, but the father-son theme does really work here, and perhaps that justifies some of the play's other missteps and lack of new ideas. Some fans are angry that Harry has trouble being a good dad to Albus. Conversely, I think this is strongly explained in the play by Harry's own past trauma, and the fact that Albus is determined to hate him. Albus refusing and then ruining Harry's baby blanket (the only thing Harry has from his mother and therefore his most valuable possession—something he's giving his son as a gift in the hope that it will bring them together) is horrifically cruel, even though Albus is a child and he's hurting.
Meanwhile Scorpius's father, Draco Malfoy (Alex Price) , seems to have gone through a lot of therapy in the decades since we last saw him. Indeed, I feel like the play stretches the bounds of its "growing up" characterisation a bit far with him, but it's fun, so I'll go with it. Apparently, Draco (we call him Draco, now) was changed by the love of a good woman, who incidentally we never see because she died offstage (Ginny gets a few good lines, but plays a similar, slightly dull role: largely there to soothe her husband's troubled spirit). He's key to shaking Harry out of his I'm-a-terrible-dad funk. Despite his own poor relationship with his son (Scorpius introduces himself to Albus with "Father-Son issues, I have them!"), Draco is always coming round to Harry's house to yell at him for trying to split Albus and Scorpius up, and thus underestimating the "power of friendship" (genuine quote). Really.
Two other "fathers" of sorts come back from the dead to twang heartstrings one more time. Dumbledore (Barry McCarthy) returns for two scenes as a portrait—a simple, but highly effective, theatrical device of a frame lowered in front of an actor on a dark stage. There was a lump in my throat, and something in my eye, throughout the second of these two scenes, in which Harry says to the old headmaster, "I have proved as bad a father to [Albus] as you were to me. Leaving him in places he felt unloved—growing in him resentments he'll take years to understand." He then breaks down and admits, "I loved you, too, Dumbledore." On the page it looks overwrought, but it wasn't meant to be read on a page. The actors deliver it beautifully (finally a Dumbledore I can believe in—neither Harris nor Gambon were good).
Severus Snape is still alive in the universe where Harry is dead and Voldemort rules. He helps Scorpius reset time, even after learning he won't be alive to see that other reality. "Tell Albus," he says to Scorpius as he faces down a Dementor, "tell Albus Severus—I'm proud he carries my name." I've seen this scene called sappy. Reader, it was tragic and wonderful. Snape's doe Patronus in this scene, by the way, was a flaming deer's head carried by someone dressed in black. It looked brilliant.
Other amazing effects include Harry walking up to the phonebooth outside the Ministry—and being sucked into it. (The play does this twice, and it was just as good the second time.) Delphi, Scorpius, and Albus transform on stage into Hermione, Harry, and Ron. (People applauded.) The real Harry and Hermione approach as Albus-as-Ron is trying to cram the door of Hermione's office shut on Delphi-as-Hermione and Scorpius-as-Harry; you can still see the two of them behind the door as the real Harry and Hermione walk on from the other side of the stage; then the door slams. (Magic.)  Smoke comes out of Scorpius's ears when he eats a Pepper Imp; brooms fly into hands; the boys swim in the lake during the Second Task. The friend I was with pointed out the subtle Harry Potter wallpaper inside the theatre; we concluded they'd spent a lot of money, but it turns out to be crucial to an effect in the second play where Ginny casts a spell that reveals Delphi's prophecy around the walls of her room – and shining from the walls of the theatre. Harry and Draco have a wizard's duel in a brief moment while Ginny has unwisely left the room: spells send chairs and both men flying. (I was at an angle where for a moment I could see a person dressed all in black lifting one of the actors, so that's how at least that one was done.)
Where you aren't expected to believe the effect, the magic of theatre makes you want to believe. Hogwarts' famous moving staircases are represented very simply by two staircases on wheels, which also form Harry's cupboard under the stairs, or Hermione's podium in the Ministry of Magic. The Sorting Hat is held and voiced by the same large black actor who plays Hagrid (Chris Jarmon). The Hogwarts Express is a line of chairs that shakes and sways, but you can feel the speed. Albus and Scorpius manage to jump off the roof of that speeding train, escaping the grasp of the fearsome "trolley witch," succeeding in this escape where apparently even Sirius Black and Fred and George Weasley failed.
In an early scene on that same train, Hermione and Ron's precocious daughter, Rose Granger-Weasley (sadly underused but well played by Cherrelle Skeete), says to Albus: "We need to concentrate . . . on who we choose to be friends with. My mum and dad met your dad on their first Hogwarts Express, you know." Albus summarises this as, "So we need to choose now who to be friends with for life?" As usual, Rose is absolutely right: Albus meets Scorpius, and the two form an instant and lasting friendship, founded, like Harry and Ron's, on exchanges of food. It later transpires that eager-to-please, sweet, nerdy Scorpius has grown up hearing stories about Harry Potter (WTF Draco?) and has always wanted "a mate to get up to mayhem with. Just like Harry Potter. And I got his son. How crazily fortunate is that." Albus responds: "But I'm nothing like my dad." "You're better," Scorpius replies. "You're my best friend, Albus."
On the night I saw the play, Anthony Boyle stumbled (by purpose or design) over this line, so that it sounded like, "you're mine—my best friend." If you think this sounds really gay, you're not wrong. Interestingly, the same stumble is used on purpose for Ron and Hermione, in the first AU where they have never realised their love. Ron says, "You, my funny friend, my Hermione. Not that—not my Hermione, you understand—not MY Hermione—not MINE." Scorpius is irritated by Albus's romantic interest in Delphi, conjures a Patronus while thinking about Albus, and tells him, "If I had to choose a companion to be at the return of eternal darkness with, I'd choose you." The scenes where Harry forbids them to be friends are staged with Albus and Scorpius looking mournfully after each other as they meet and are parted by the moving staircases; the stage directions read: "Scorpius is left looking after him. Heartbroken."
I now know the second play's ending features Scorpius contracting a major case of the Not Gays . Revisiting the story through the script, I therefore picked up on the relatively subtle clues that Scorpius was, in fact, into Rose; but while watching the play, I genuinely thought: "Maybe J. K. is actually going to introduce a gay lead. Maybe Scorpius is unrequitedly in love with Albus, who does, after all, share a name with the only confirmed-for-gay Potter character." I dare say that if she had that's all we'd be talking about, rather than kvetching about Time-Turners and whether or not Voldemort could still have sex. Given my own personal prerogatives, I'd probably feel more protective of it, despite the bare essentials being the same, because the play had taken this particular progressive step.
For similar reasons it actually is worth applauding the production for the casting of the excellent Dumezweni as "brown-eyed, frizzy-haired" Hermione Granger and a supporting cast who are probably twenty-five percent POC; as well as all the many, many other things they got right. The show isn't lazy or thoughtless. It's an extremely well-crafted piece of theatre, put together by a lot of people who give a damn, and who (I genuinely believe) love Harry Potter. Most people make mistakes with their first pieces of fanfiction, before they really understand the particular fandom, but you can still see the talent and potential there. This show is brimming over with both.
I recommend you try and see it, if you can.
- Insider tip: if you're going to queue, queue on Friday for Saturday's shows. They're only showing Part 2 on Friday, but the box office is still open, so the odds are better. [return]
- As I said, this wouldn't fly in fandom. A beta would have caught it. In one sense, J. K. Rowling knows her books much better than anyone else; in another, she really doesn't. She wrote Azkaban almost twenty years ago, and she's got better things to do than repeatedly reread her own work. [return]
- Sirius Black—now there's a villain I can get behind (that he isn't a villain just makes it better). In general, Azkaban is so neat. Although it picks up concepts from previous books, it also does something completely new and to some extent closes it off by the end of the book—we know who the goodies and baddies are, Sirius is rescued and Snape thwarted. This means casual readers don't feel alienated without a glossary (which is provided in Cursed Child programmes), but simultaneously because it's tied to the deaths of Harry's parents and the defeat of Voldemort, the plot feels important. [return]
- Mostly reformed, and now sporting a ridiculous ponytail, Draco provides a good foil to Harry, and it's good to have him around. The audience clapped when he allowed his son to hug him at the end. (Fandom, which, like Moaning Myrtle, has always been "moderately partial to a Malfoy," is almost unanimously keen on both father and son, even where it's ambivalent about the rest of the play). [return]
- Previously, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have always been the kids sneaking into the Ministry, bucking authority; now they are the authority figures, and kids are pretending to be them. How time has moved on. [return]
- This has—yes—annoyed fans. It's seen as queerbaiting. [return]
Katy lives and works in London. She enjoys theatre, musical theatre, and SFF television filmed long before she was born.
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