Two days after it was published in America, the script of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” – the new stage play by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne – had already sold 2m copies. In Britain, it’s the fastest-selling book of the decade and the fastest-selling playscript ever. Its reception has not been universally positive, however. Amazon hosts some hilariously disgruntled reviews. One of them begins, “I hated this book so much I wish I could unread it”. Another opens with the words “daylight robbery”. Some of the difficulty for these readers may lie in the fact that the script can only ever be an approximation of the experience of seeing this spellbinding production on stage. In it, characters can be seen to whoosh and melt, to hover and transfigure. And the marvellous theatrical trickery is a complement to some excellent performances, which have laughter, warmth and pitch-perfect comic timing.
Part of the appeal of the Potter fantasy, by contrast with children’s fantasy fiction of a more immersive kind (like, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels), is the way the world it depicts is enmeshed in our own. The idea that somewhere a door might open (or you might crash through a wall with a luggage trolley) to reveal an alternative reality of broomsticks, biting teapots and butter-beer is perfect daydream material. And that is one of the appeals of great theatre too: it lets you escape the monotony of everyday life and dive into another world for a few hours. In this respect, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” totally succeeds. Its special effects are exceptional. Even the most hardened cynic will stop thinking about how they are achieved and believe, for a moment, that they really are seeing someone fly. I was transported for several hours (in fact several hours more than I would usually devote to theatre), immersed as much in Rowling’s vision as in the thrilling magic of John Tiffany’s production.
The story picks up at the end of the final novel in the series (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”), when we see the adult Harry Potter waving his children off on the Hogwarts Express. It hinges on events that occur in the fourth novel, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (although real fans will notice wormholes in Rowling and Thorne’s plotting). For adults, it’s a story of Freudian angst: a parable about parental responsibility and living in the shadow of a famous father. For younger audience members, it’s a resonant tale of teenage belonging and exclusion.
When I read the Potter books as a child, I remember being slightly annoyed by the character of Harry Potter. He has secret magical powers, he’s popular at school, he has mysterious godparents and secret wealth. Oh, and he saved the world from the Dark Lord. I far preferred Bilbo Baggins, the central character in Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. He is resolutely unadventurous, spends a lot of time worrying about when he will get his Second Breakfast and leaves home to go on an adventure in a bit of a flap, forgetting his pocket handkerchief. Thankfully, in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, there is a kind of correction. We see the other side of the smug character of Harry Potter – an overworked adult now, struggling to be a good father to an awkward teenage son. And the two main child characters are kind of, well…losers. They struggle to make friends. At one point, one of them says, “a quiz, I love a quiz!” You could almost hear the singing hearts of every dork in the silent auditorium.
Not that the auditorium was often silent. When I went to see it, the audience was remarkably receptive. Every time there was a big plot reveal, the entire theatre would gasp, loudly. It’s strange to hear 1,400 people laughing in unison at an in-joke.
The pace of the production feels cinematic. Every scene change is taken at a sprint. Characters charge off, new scenery arrives very quickly. It’s like the cut at the end of a film scene. There is a lot of backing music, as if Tiffany was afraid to have real silence on stage. Theatre purists who relish the pared-down intimacy of a performer speaking unaccompanied might be disappointed, especially when the music is injudicious. The opening, for instance, feels like it belongs in a life-insurance ad. There were other low points. At one stage a camp centaur appears, breathes noisily in an equine parody, and delivers a monologue to some backing music which sounds disturbingly like Enya. And you don’t go to marvel at the dialogue, which is functional, sometimes platitudinous. But nobody ever read Rowling for her prose; they read her for her plots, which are joyously inventive.
As you leave the show, theatre attendants stand at the exits distributing badges with the phrase “Keep the secrets”, which is slightly creepy. A friend remarked that it’s a bit like what the bad clown says at the end of a children’s party. On Amazon another peevish reviewer has pondered the hashtag #keepthesecrets. “Is the secret that this whole story is a load of rubbish and if anyone actually let the secret out they would suddenly have an empty theatre?” This is unfair. Yes, there are some plot holes, but the play is also an intriguing continuation of the Potter story, which is brought to life in startling ways.