“Harry Potter” in the West End: A Hogwarts Report Card

Harry Potter
Jamie Parker as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photos: Manuel Harlan.

Hogwarts School of
Witchcraft and Wizardry

Performance Report:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Palace Theatre, London

Subject: Plot; Grade: A-
Ms. JK Rowling has proven herself time and again at exceeding expectations in terms of both plot development and sustaining interest within an already packed field. Returning to the comfortable world in which she has already flexed her muscles, she reignites characters with ease and suitably develops the narrative some 19 years from where she previously abandoned it. Time is particularly on her side throughout as she relies heavily on the use of alternative time dimensions, through use of a Time Turner, for plot strands, characters and relationships to be explored. Whilst this works in theory, there are times when this can be fuddled and sustain some further refinement, particularly for the more basic muggle watcher.

Cleverly divided into two parts, Ms. Rowling succeeds at a furious exposition during her first section, building to an appropriately terrifying climax at the end of the first play, suitably leaving audiences eager to return. She mixes the old with the new exceptionally well, excelling once again at creating and establishing characters and relationships that invite investment and further development. Whilst committed to exploring new characters and stories, her work is, as always, tightly woven into her previous writing, making for a unified and fulfilling advancement in a familiar narrative realm.

Ms. Rowling has created a compelling and emotional adventure story that bonds two generations together and questions what it means to live up to the expectations and reputations of your parents. As Harry Potter’s son, Albus Severus Potter, forms an unlikely bond with the son of his enemy, Scorpius Snape, the pair develop a mutual dependence on each other that leads them to challenge the past, present and future simultaneously. An exceptionally clever and ultimately fulfilling feat.

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Subject: Writing; Grade: B-
Mr. Jack Thorne has taken on the unenviable task of adapting characters from one much-loved form into another, working alongside his colleagues to maintain an overall sense of theatricality whilst juggling an audience’s demands and expectations. Pacing varies between the frantic and almost rushed first section to a more stagnant rhythm of the final section, where the morals and lessons seem somewhat too carefully sewn up. With such a wide-ranging world to explore, he does so with style and ease that keeps scenes flowing effortlessly between multiple locations, times and often dimensions.

Impressive effects with definite charm and traditional appeal.

Mr. Thorne seems most suited to writing for character development rather than action scenes, echoing the work of Ms. Rowling, who finds comfort in the more trivial and character-driven sections. Lifting some text from the novels adds a sense of familiarity to flashback scenes with Harry’s family and the original stories, but can also feel slightly superfluous to the narrative as a whole. His dialogue fits neatly into the carefully developed and much-loved characters, finding extra resonance in the deeper layers of Hermione in particular, whilst Ron maintains the much-needed lighter aspects of the production as a whole. There are times when the weaknesses in the female characters rise to the forefront, and it’s disappointing to see in this “bromance” narrative that the female characters never quite feel as strong or developed as their male counterparts. The central roles of new characters Albus and Severus are finely crafted with added nuance that extends beyond the stage and allows for varied interpretation.

One of the biggest challenges is creating a villain that stands up to and against that of He Who Must Not Be Named. This is the weakest aspect of the writing; it allows for multiple anti-climaxes that never fully live up to the drama that is threatened at the beginning of the second play. The action scenes are perhaps the weakest, echoing the flaws of the original books, and at times it is overly sign-posted in order to catch the audience up with the narrative rather than relying on their memory and skill.

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The cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (photo Manuel Harlan)
The cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Subject: Direction and Staging; Grade: A+
Mr. John Tiffany and Mr. Steven Hoggett excel in all areas, exceeding every expectation and making this the strongest aspect of creative work. Juggling such a mammoth undertaking, they make the action flow seamlessly and employ such varied and exciting staging techniques that audiences are continually rewarded throughout both plays. Utilising the entire 40-strong company, the stage is in constant and natural motion, allowing time and place to exist in perfect harmony. Against a pulsating and modern soundtrack, the movement in particular gives a fresh perspective on the action, with drilled moments of choreography enhancing both worlds in which the action inhabits.

Dramatic and intimate moments between characters are handled with as much ease as the larger ensemble moments, creating an environment that is never overwhelming, yet peaks in all of the right places. At risk of overplaying their hands and relying too much on visual wizardry, the pair carefully maintain the integrity of the piece as a dramatic text, allowing key relationships to surface appropriately. The movement is suitably crafted, with outstanding sections of brilliance that physicalize the magic world in a refreshing and perfectly theatrical manner.

Subject: Scenography; Grade: A
Ms. Christine Jones’ set design is astonishingly classy and multifunctional, embracing the overall feel and aesthetic that a production of this magnitude requires. On an open and expansive playing space, the set evokes the nature of time throughout the play, blending ideas of time travel and the railway station as a recurring theme. Ms. Jones bases much of the action on a decorative turntable that allows human-manipulated set pieces to be brought on and off with ease, from the transforming enchanted staircases that glide creating multiple locations, to magical bookshelves and beyond.

Combined with the efforts of light and sound, the team manage to execute the almost impossible task of the imagined magical world that has audiences laughing in delight at the charming detail that utilizes the beautiful and appropriate surroundings of the Palace Theatre. First-rate work.

Subject: Special Effects; Grade: A-
Whilst not necessarily items never before been seen on a stage, Mr. Jeremy Chernick and Mr. Jaime Harrison harness a mix of impressive effects that rely on old stage tricks that have a definite charm and traditional appeal. Set against the magical world was always going to be a challenge, along with expectations of audiences coming to the theatre with memories of the film franchise. I’m happy to report that the work in this area is particularly thrilling and continues to surprise even the most cynical audience member.

A particular highlight involves characters transformation with Polyjuice Potion, along with entering the Ministry of Magic that draw gasps from audiences each time they are accomplished. Throughout each part, the special effects continue to delight and surprise, with continued and sustained delivery, adding to the overall charm and success of the production. To say much more would risk ruining the hard work of the team who have encouraged others to #KeepTheSecrets. An admirable task.

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The cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (photo Manuel Harlan)

Subject: Acting; Grade: B
As a company, the acting is generally strong, despite being challenged by expectations leveled on the principal characters by the audience. Unlike their film counterparts, the older characters carry a more natural authority, yet still manage to maintain the nuances that we have come to learn and love over time. In the central role of Harry Potter, Mr. Jamie Parker achieves a solid distinction between the haunted central voice who carries the weight of the Wizarding World on his shoulders, whilst still coming across as notably heroic and ultimately noble. As his aged character is somewhat defeated, there is little joy in his delivery, and moments of more subtle humour could certainly be found.

A unified and fulfilling advancement.

Ms. Noma Dumezweni, as Hermione Grainger, the Minister for Magic, is weighty in her delivery and somewhat underdeveloped from the character with whom we have become accustomed. It is left to Mr. Paul Thornley, as Ron Weasley, to carry the most spirit of the original character, providing both comic relief and suitable moments of lighthearted appeal. As a trio, they pull together to capture the mischievous nature that we remember, and have a natural chemistry that works even in their senior positions.

The younger characters hold much of the dialogue and drive the narrative, with Mr. Anthony Boyle, as Scorpius, and Mr. Sam Clemmett, as Albus, driving both the action and the drama. Their relationship with each other is effective and unique, making for a momentous set of new leading players.

There is varied support from the ensemble cast who among them play characters as wide ranging as Professor Snape, Dolores Umbridge, Petunia Dursley and Albus Dumbledore, and most manage to do so without becoming theme-park-esque attraction characters. Some acting is stunted by mannered expectations, where actors aren’t always allowed the freedom required, but thankfully this is minimal. One of the weakest performances comes from the pivotal role of Delphine, who lacks the gravitas and depth in order to make her character fully come to life.

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Suggestions for Further Development
As it now stands following a terms worth of previews, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is certainly worthy of exploration by both fans of the franchise and those coming to it with fresh theatrical expectations. What could have been a Spiderman-scale disaster has been avoided, thanks to the competency of the creative team and the integrity with which the entire production has been delivered.

With some further tightening of the script, in particular some development of the female characters and raising of the stakes in terms of the newest threat, this could potentially stand alone as a solid piece of scripted drama.

Total Grade: A
A genius display of theatrical skill mixed with genuine ingenuity and integrity. Very well done.