Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic review

Theatre
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Hufflepuffs finally get their time in the spotlight in this hit Off Broadway comedy

If Melbourne’s exclusive lock on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (the premium Wizarding World stage experience) is too far away, too expensive, or too five-hours-long for you, then you might enjoy Puffs, its plucky unauthorised distant cousin.

This frequently laugh-out-loud comedy is a love letter to Harry Potter fandom. If you’ve ever over-thought the books ("Gee, those kids face an awful lot of danger at school, that’s not safe!" or "What about all the kids who aren’t brave, evil, or brainy?!") then you’ll find your match in this play, which traces the incoming group of Puffs (you know, that yellowy, badger-loving house?) in the year that Harry and his pals started their Hogwarts journey. A narrator (Gareth Isaac) takes us through the story, book by book, and the sight gag when he brings out a massive Book Five is the kind of in-joke designed just for you, the die-hard Potter fan.

This group even bears some resemblance to the one you remember from the books. There’s an orphan, our protagonist, only this time his name is Wayne (Ryan Hawke) and he’s from Queensland. We also have the best friends with chemistry, Megan (Angelina Thomson) and Oliver (Adam Marks). Megan is determined to be anything but a Puff (her mother was the first Puff to be locked up in Azkaban, so you could say it runs in the family), and Oliver is a maths genius who can’t believe there’s no academics at his new school; he struggles with spells. There’s a lovable ditz, Leanne (the wonderful Lauren McKenna, also resident director), who just wants to have a sleepover with her friends, plus an assorted crew of good-hearted side characters.

And then there’s the rockstar of the Puffs, Cedric (James Bryers, also the star of the production with his million-watt smile and star quality; he brings the warmth, wit and dreamy-leading-man material you need from a Cedric). The Puffs adore him – Wayne all but swoons every time he sees the older boy, and looks to him to forge his own path – and when the first act barrels to an end with the events of Book Four (dubbed here “The Year the Puffs Mattered”) it’s genuinely moving.

Puffs could do with a little more of that gravitas. It’s a joke factory first and foremost, and if you’re invested in the world of Harry Potter, those jokes are going to land and land well. But there’s rich and un-mined material here for real emotional growth; the characters could be more than stock, their journeys more than rote.

Still, McKenna – with a cast of underdogs and fresh-faced performers – makes the best of the script. Now in its Sydney season, Puffs doesn’t have bigger names in its cast anymore like Rob Mills, who played Cedric in Melbourne, and the production feels messy for it, but it in a charming way: you’re watching natural hams figure out in the moment what works and what doesn’t. In the second act, an extended sports-coach bit goes spectacularly off the rails, and most of the actors onstage end up breaking character to laugh hysterically. It’s fun at first, but grows wearying because it feels undisciplined.

There were a few other problems in opening night, buzzing like gnats to distract from the comedy: sound issues and cast vocal projection issues (Puffs is staged in a tent in the Entertainment Quarter; its Melbourne season was inside a traditional theatre) meant more than a few lines couldn’t be heard even in our seats close to the stage, and some prop cues were missed or late. These issues should be ironed out pretty quickly.

Still, this is a charming, for-the-fans affair, and it’s a place to be with people who get you and the things you like. Audience members were dressed to the nines (We spotted a terrifying Voldemort, a dangerous Bellatrix, and more house scarves than we could count), most of your favourite characters get a shout-out, and you can get magic-themed drinks at the bar. It’s fun, and nothing more. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

By: Cassie Tongue

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