When illusion and magic team Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher first got the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it was full of impossible things. Their mission: to make those impossible things happen.
"Jamie came up with his literally amazing ideas and pulling all the stuff off the page that Jack [Thorne] and Jo [Rowling, yes, that one] and John [Tiffany] had written, with all these beautiful things described. I think quite often you write things, not thinking that they actually could physically be done, but you put it down because that's your vision. And so it's our job to try and put those visions on stage and try and realise them," says Fisher.
"For example, the invisibility cloak. Without using CGI and everything like that, how can you make someone look like they're walking around a room? Well, maybe you can move things around the room, and it feels like you can follow that somebody's moving."
The show is a 21st-century technical marvel, but many of the illusions in it rely on techniques that are hundreds of years old.
"The nice thing about what we try and do with the illusions in the show is there are a lot of techniques that are drawn from many years gone by, from Victorian times or beyond," Fisher says. "We use those techniques and what some might call very basic stagecrafts, and in some respects they are. But within those basic stagecrafts, we've added in a lot extra. What's brilliant is we're working in a fantastic world now where you can create and build so many things that you couldn't have done even 20 years ago."
Fisher says that's very deliberate, and that no matter how whiz-bang an illusion is, it still has to feel like it fits into the carefully calibrated world of Harry Potter. "None of it should feel like it's advanced, that it's technological. It's all organic, it all feels part of the world."
Being true to the story and true to the world is the most important consideration for all of the magic in Cursed Child, both when the show was originally conceived and now that it's been shorted to one part. Almost none of the magic has been taken out of the show, and in fact, there are more illusions in this version than in the original, longer show.
"What's been joyous for us from an illusion point of view is that we didn't really lose any illusions and got to add a couple more in," says Fisher. "There is this sort of tag [for the new version], which is 'more magic per minute'. But there genuinely is more magic per minute, because we didn't lose any effects and the show has been shrunk from five and a half to three and a half [hours]. When Jamie and I were sitting and watching the one part for the first time, we were like, literally, 'there's an effect. And there's another effect. There's another effect.' And we were like, 'Oh my god, this is cool'."
The one-part version of the show has opened in New York and in San Francisco, but it's being perfected – and more magic added – in Melbourne. Even throughout Melbourne previews, the creative team are continually tweaking the show and adding more 'wow' moments.
"It's been really exciting to do the reimagining and be able to revisit moments and enhance moments and make them bigger – that's not an opportunity you get all the time. And also, we got to go back and work with the actors on existing techniques and figure out how could we do this better? How can we make this cleaner? How can we make these moments even better for the audience? And what's been amazing about this cast – because we opened it in New York and San Francisco, and they came off the back of lockdown and came into it having not done the show for two years – whereas the Australian cast literally closed the two-part on the Sunday night and on Tuesday morning, we're hitting the one part.
"They've just been extraordinary in terms of parking the two-part and being so willing to adjust to all these new techniques and these new ways and new props and things like this and having to really leave a lot of muscle memory behind and get new muscle memory in for what we're asking them to do now. And honestly, they have been absolutely brilliant with that in every little move."
The show has changed slightly throughout Melbourne previews, with tweaks to illusions, sound and lighting to make it even more impactful. It's the third city to get this one-part show – after New York and San Francisco – but it's here in Melbourne that the final show is settled. "We've been working on polishing and making little changes here, which we will then take on to Toronto, which is rehearsing at the moment, and then back to New York and San Francisco," says Fisher.
Melbourne ended up being the crucible in which the final two-part version was forged, as well.
"We made it in London did in New York, and when we came to Melbourne, we made changes. And that became the ultimate two-part show, which we then fed back to all the other shows. And that's exactly what we're doing here as well."
The one-part version is more accessible for families whose young children might struggle to sit through five and a half hours of theatre – and whose parents might baulk at the $300 price tag per person for both parts. As a consequence, Fisher has noticed a younger audience than the original show attracted, which means a whole new generation to delight. "It's so lovely that you can hear those young voices laughing, and literally right into the last scene. It might be three and a half hours, but they were with it for every single moment."
These younger audience members are not only wowed by the humour and the poignancy of the story but by its jaw-dropping magic, as well. "This will be their first time going to the theatre, and they're used to watching films and used to watching TV, but to suddenly be seeing the things that you just think can only happen on film and TV happen actually live on stage, you see the kids' eyes bulge out of their heads."
And it's not just children who get a kick out of the show's magic. Fisher says a new cast member had recently joined the Melbourne show and was watching a particular scene from the audience seats. "It's one of my favourite effects, actually, in the broom class where the brooms float up into people's hands. There's a very complacent company because they've worked with the effects and they know exactly they are done. And this new cast member was sitting in the auditorium watching the scene. And all the brooms started to rise up into people's hands and he started looking around like 'Can anyone see this?' Because all of the brooms were floating up into people's hands and nobody was reacting."
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is in previews at the Princess Theatre and opens on May 19.