Harry Potter and the Cursed Child review
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Head back to Hogwarts in this epic two-part adventure – the eighth chapter of JK Rowling's saga
Update 09/06/20: Performances of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have been suspended following state and federal government advice on COVID-19. All performances until August 9 are affected, at which date the company will revisit the policy in line with current government advice. If you hold tickets for performances until August 9 you will be contacted regarding rescheduling and/or refunds.
The first rule of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is that you don’t talk about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Safeguarding spoilers is an expected responsibility for anyone who attends the Potter-verse’s first on-stage outing. There’s even a hashtag: #KeepTheSecrets. But in truth (as far as theatre critique is concerned, at least), JK Rowling needn’t have worried. This marathon, five-hour spectacle has a plot so dense and sprawling, so wonderfully, unashamedly elaborate, it would take many thousands of words more than any theatre review to even scratch the surface.
While we may have been sworn to secrecy about Cursed Child’s plot, we can reveal that the hype – and rarely has a piece of theatre ever generated such fever-pitched buzz – is entirely deserved. And not just because of the quality of the production. The masterminds behind the show – led by Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany – have not merely set out to put on a play, but rather craft a rich and detailed immersive experience. To this end, Melbourne’s Princess Theatre has undergone a top to bottom $6.5 million makeover, transforming its interiors to match a Hogwartsian, Potterfied aesthetic.
If this sounds like an unnecessary extravagance, it’s probably an indication this play isn’t for you. The success of Cursed Child, which has smashed box office records on Broadway and the West End, is powered by its unapologetic exclusivity. Those without any prior knowledge of Harry and co will be baffled within minutes. A moderate familiarity with either the books or their film adaptations is a basic requirement, but for proud Potter tragics, it’s a thoroughly rewarding case of increasing returns: the more die-hard your fandom, the more you’ll get out of the show’s many in-jokes, subtle winks and canonical call-backs.
In fact, Potter purists may even approve of the play’s tonality over the often middle-rank movies. The dialogue is more playful than the films, the characterisations more apt for comedy than their moody onscreen counterparts. Imogen Heap’s upbeat, poppy score adds to the buoyant, capering feel. In many respects, Cursed Child is a better reflection of the wizarding world captured by the written word than anything conjured by Hollywood, although the play’s short scenes and brisk transitions seem to be a nod to the cinematic.
And yet, with such a devoted following comes an equally zealous ownership. Had Cursed Child betrayed the legacy of Rowling’s novels or failed to live up to those stratospherically high expectations, the backlash would have surely been swift and brutal. The play avoids this pitfall by immediately anchoring itself to the source material, opening where the final book concludes, some 19 years after the defeat of Voldemort, as a now grown Harry, Ron and Hermione wave off their children on the Hogwarts Express, bound for their alma mater.
In that trio of familiar roles, three of our best homegrown actors lead an (almost) all-Aussie cast – a refreshing change to the trend of imported talent helming major productions in recent years. As the titular hero, Gareth Reeves has the most opportunity to shine as a careworn and furrow-browed Harry, overwhelmed by parenthood. Gynton Grantley and Paula Arundell as Ron and Hermione have far less to work with. They do what they can with their often onenote, expositional dialogue, but with only a handful of moments for them to really bring their talents to bear, there’s a nagging sense of a missed opportunity.
You won’t, however, have long to dwell on that shortcoming. Courtesy of a rigorously drilled ensemble, the relentlessly whiteknuckle tempo of the action, and Steven Hoggett’s fleet-footed, cape-whirling movement, there’s barely a second when the audience isn’t hyperstimulated. The astonishing sophistication of the stagecraft is equally spellbinding, with more than a few jaw-dropping coups de theatre that honestly defy belief. All this production’s elements, from the set to the costumes to the lighting and, of course, the all-important illusions, are precisely interconnected on a scale that has likely never been attempted before in live theatre. The result is a show that not only keeps pace with the big budget CGI of its cinematic cousins, but often surpasses it.
It is, of course, fascinating to discover what came next for the established characters, but as with the novels, this story belongs to a boy wizard: Albus Potter (Sean Rees-Wemyss). Terrified of failing to live up to his legendary family name, he shares a strained relationship with his famous father, who despite the mythic status is still haunted by unresolved traumas from his own childhood. The power of friendship is another returning theme, as Albus forges an unexpected bond with Scorpius (played with goofy brilliance by William McKenna), the son of his father’s old adversary, Draco Malfoy (Tom Wren). It’s with these complex, flawed, achingly relatable connections that Cursed Child casts its greatest spell. At the centre of a big-budget pop culture blockbuster is a core of genuine, meaningful pathos and emotional depth; powerful, sincere and utterly bewitching.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is playing at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, with bookings open until July 12. Tickets are still available for performances throughout February.
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