Heads up! We’re working hard to be accurate – but these are unusual times, so please always check before heading out.
‘I knew you were going to ask me something like this,’ mutters Jamie Parker. ‘I’m going to have to have an answer, and I haven’t got one yet.’
The question I’ve just asked the 37-year-old actor is pretty simple. Who is Harry Potter? The reason he’s having difficulty is that I don’t mean Harry Potter the boy-wizard protagonist of the most popular book series and second most popular film series in history. I mean the Harry Potter he’s playing: the middle-aged protagonist of the new, two-part stage play ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’.
Set 19 years after the events of JK Rowling’s final book ‘The Deathly Hallows’ – or immediately after its brief epilogue, if you’re going to be nerdy – the eighth official Potter adventure was written by top playwright Jack Thorne in consultation with Rowling, and is being performed in the West End.
Recommended: More 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' news
To say it’s hotly anticipated would be to use a bland turn of phrase to describe the most iconic fictional story of our time. And to note that ‘The Cursed Child’ instantly sold out its current booking period – into May next year – doesn’t begin to cover how popular it is. Put it this way: ‘The Deathly Hallows’ sold 2.65 million copies in the UK, on its first day; even if only those people attempted to see ‘The Cursed Child’ at the 1,200-seat Palace Theatre, the show would be sold out for ten years.
It’s bloody popular is what I’m saying. And the simple process of supply and demand dictates that some people are going to have to wait a loooong time to see it. Which means a full-on cult of secrecy has sprung up around its plot, enforced by Rowling (who has 7.5 million devoted Twitter followers) via the hashtag #KeepTheSecrets.
All of which is a circuitous way of saying that I may have given the outwardly unflappable Parker – a versatile, heavyweight actor hugely respected in the theatre world – a minor mental breakdown as he struggles to think what he can actually tell me about it.
Things are fractionally easier for the other actor I’m sitting with in the Palace Theatre’s distinctly Hogwartsian bar. Sam Clemmett, looking younger than his 22 years, is the relative newcomer playing Harry’s son, Albus Severus. He seems a touch overawed by the whole situation and can’t tell me anything either, but at least he’s not got the weight of playing the most famous character in twenty-first-century literature on his shoulders. So, who is Albus Severus Potter?
‘Well…’ There is a pause, and a scan for a potential Rowling sniper. ‘As it says in the last four pages [the epilogue of “The Deathly Hallows”] and according to what’s been said about the play so far, he is a quiet, introverted, nervous young lad going to Hogwarts. And as it says in the little biography, he has to deal with the legacy of his father’s past and that burden.’
‘He’s just an ordinary guy who’s tried to do the best he can‘
If you didn’t read the books, here’s a very brief summary of that past. Rowling’s seven tales of magic and friendship each correspond with one of Harry’s adventure-filled academic years at Hogwarts, Britain’s premier boarding school for wizards. They end with the 18-year-old Harry saving the world by defeating Lord Voldemort, the evil magician who killed his parents. A lot of other stuff happens too. The books are not short; in fact, they got longer and more complex as the series progressed, effectively growing up with their audience – which is why the average Potterhead is not a child but a 25 to 35-year-old hungry for more. All they’ve had so far is the aforementioned epilogue in which Harry, his BFFs Hermione and Ron, and his erstwhile nemesis Draco meet at King’s Cross station as they prepare to pack their kids off to Hogwarts for the first time. That ‘The Cursed Child’ picks up the story from here is as much as Rowling and Sonia Friedman, the West End super-producer who persuaded Rowling to do a stage adventure, are prepared to let us know.
So can I find out any more? After an epic pause for thought, Parker finally has an answer to the question of who the middle-aged Harry is.
‘Okay,’ he says, slowly, ‘trying to find an answer to your earlier question, Harry is formerly a very, very famous teenage boy who’s been known alternatively as The Chosen One and The Boy Who Lived, this overtly messianic figure. But he’s never claimed or pretended to be a hero, he never coveted the extraordinary circumstances he was born into, he’s just an ordinary guy who’s tried to do the best he can.
‘Having had this extraordinary rite of passage so early in life, picking up the story 20 years later a lot of his chickens are going to come home to roost – as I think a lot of people find in their forties. When the next generation come along and they’re parents themselves, they have to reckon their internal accounts with the relationships they’ve built. We’re not giving anything away in the plot to say that the relationship between Albus and Harry is a large part of the meal that we’re giving people. But there’s a hell of a lot to it besides that.’
Honestly, I try to get more information out, but I’m rebuffed every time. I point out the fact that the text is being published soon anyway and that, besides, nobody worries about spoilering ‘Hamlet’. But Parker has an answer for that.
‘I know somebody,’ he grins, ‘with whom I’ve watched “Hamlet” and “Othello” as well as the new Star Wars movie with them having absolutely no idea what’s going to happen, and I can’t tell you what a joy it was. I will take to my grave with me the atmosphere of the first “Cursed Child” preview, because no one knew anything. Only very rarely have I been able to deploy the phrase “audible gasps”. And it wasn’t through spectacle, it was simply through the deployment of information. Obviously that is going to settle a little as the information does get out there, but the joy of discovery and the joy of following these lives further is what’s at the heart of it.’
What else do we know about the play? It’s in two parts, firmly in keeping with the epic scope of the later books; they can be seen as a matinee Part I followed by an evening Part II or over two consecutive nights. Rowling has assured us on Twitter that it’ll be a weepy. It’s directed by John Tiffany, whose magic-heavy productions ‘Let the Right One In’ and ‘The Glass Menagerie’ set an obvious precedent for a show that’s clearly going to be chocker with special effects. (‘Inevitably, given the nature of the story – it would have been naive for us to assume otherwise,’ notes Parker.) We know there was a live owl in it, which got ditched after the first preview. (Parker: ‘We’ve parted company with the owl.’) I don’t see the stage, but I can hear a lot of fantastically loud, fantastically ominous music, which I assume is the original score from electropopper Imogen Heap.
Parker assures me it will be possible to understand what’s going on even if you’ve not read the books or seen the films. ‘It’s completely coherent without former knowledge,’ he says. ‘You don’t have to read seven books in order to see this play. Though there are lots of presents in the script if you have.’
Clemmett gives me an interesting insight into the process behind the play. There are those who assume every detail in the Harry universe is dictated by Rowling, but in fact it seems like part of the appeal to her was giving free rein to others. ‘Me and Anthony [Boyle, who plays Draco’s hilariously named son Scorpius] created the backstories of both Albus and Scorpius. We would pick a particular event that would have happened between birth and the present day, thinking what that event might be, adding flesh to those bones, and it was a really exciting journey for us. It’s been lovely in that respect, to have a blank canvas.’
‘Given the potential for tight control over something that’s so personal and such a gigantic success,’ says Parker, ‘it never fails to amaze me the amount of generosity Joanne [Rowling] has got in terms of sharing this.’
A Potterphile colleague who saw an early preview (and loved it) gave me a few minor spoilers, which I attempt to craft into leading questions, all of which Parker and Clemmett bat away. I come away having learned impressively little, except for the fact they’re both thoroughly nice chaps who clearly believe in the project intensely and are having a thoroughly good time – not necessarily a given when talking about serious actors dabbling with fantasy.
But then, Harry Potter is more than that. It’s the greatest story of our age, and it continues in our city. Paradoxically, for all its insane popularity, it’s now also one of London’s best-kept secrets.