Early in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the two-play London mega-blockbuster now transported to Broadway, Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle) tells Albus Potter (Sam Clemmett), son of now-40-ish Harry Potter (Jamie Parker), that he has “father-son issues.”
So does Albus. He resents and dislikes enormously his famously accomplished but curiously irritable dad. Indeed, Harry is quick to anger whenever attempting to get through to Albus. He’s convinced the boy isn’t trying hard enough. To his son, he consistently blurts out some chastising zingers.
Since Scorpius — the son of Draco Malfoy (Alex Price), Harry’s longtime Hogwarts enemy — are in a similar father-son predicament, it isn’t very long into Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that the two-part play establishes itself as a 21st-century entry in a long line of works on this theme, from Homer’s Odyssey to Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.
The theme, of course, is not new for the celebrated J.K. Rowling, whose novels had Potter cursed by the evil Voldemort. We know that Harry as a boy who lost his parents in a rather suspicious car accident and who, as grows up, continually searches for surrogate fathers.
So it doesn’t take much for a seasoned reader to understand the plays, but one wonders from where in Rowling herself this emanates. She hasn’t said much publicly, but it’s known that she didn’t get on easily with her father, and that the first book in the Potter series — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in England) — was published after she divorced the father of her son.
It also doesn’t take much to recognize that the most emotionally rewarding scenes in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child involve fathers and sons, too. In one scene, Harry and Draco, at last easing into a friendship, discuss whether parenting or surviving children is the hardest job in the world. And the final scene of this sprawling stage opus finds Harry and Albus reunited in a tearjerker of a moment.
Rowling knows, also, that the father-son theme may be an abiding theme but only if lodged within adventure. So when she decided to extend the Potter series without writing another book (as she indicated she never would), she chose the theater as her medium and then a pair of noteworthy collaborators. One is Jack Thorne, to whom the play is credited, and the other is director John Tiffany. They’ve toiled with Rowling on a story that she clearly insisted would stress the father-son dynamic.
So here we have Albus Potter, like any offspring of a celebrated dad, declared wanting in a new environment. The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is new to him but not, of course, to Rowling’s readers. Albus matriculates at Harry’s alma mater, reached by boarding that expected train between tracks 9 and 10.
A clumsy newbie having trouble learning how to cast spells, Albus is even assigned to the dreadful Slytherin — not Gryffindor where his father lodged. The next few years pass as he and Draco, also at Slytherin, attempt — despite one horrendous setback between them — to either win the approval of their fathers or else to alienate them completely.
As the boys struggle with and even disappear on forbidden time-travel exploits, their parents and other adults — such as Harry’s understanding wife, Ginny (Poppy Miller), and Harry’s now-married chums Hermione Granger (Noma Dumezweni) and Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley) — spend their frustrated energies trying to locate the missing kids. At one point, the irony of Harry’s predicament becomes clear to anyone who loved the novels and films when he declares that “bravery does not excuse stupidity.”
Any number of obstacles stand in the way of wrapping up the plot, not the least of which are experiences with Harry’s beloved Dumbledore (Edward James Hyland) as well as with Amos Diggery (Hyland again) and his cheerful daughter, Delphi Diggery (Jessie Fisher).
Albus does wise up and vanquish Voldemort — eventually with his father’s aid. Talk about a satisfying development in cleverly schemed set of plays.
This Potter escapade would also be nothing without some dazzling accouterments. Rowling penned them on the page, the Potter movies flung them on the screen, and now Tiffany, his designers in full flight, lavish them on the stage, even launching them right over the audience at one point in the fabulously refurbished Lyric Theatre.
There are far too many visual and audio surprises to list by set designer Christine Jones, costume designer Katrina Lindsay, lighting designer Neil Austin and sound designer Gareth Fry, not to mention the work of illusion and magic designer Jamie Harrison (wow!), composer and arranger Imogen Heap, and movement director Steven Hoggett.
But perhaps mentioning just one isn’t unfair. In the first play, there’s a sequence in which the principals discover magical bookshelves. They hold tomes in which secrets are exposed, but they also have a habit of grabbing and swallowing interlopers. The four or five minutes in which this predatory bookcase holds sway is but one of a bounty of magical highlights.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child requires a large cast — the money it will make allows the extravagance. And they’re all good and seasoned, since many are reprising roles that they created in the West End. By virtue of the size of their roles, Parker, Clemmett, Boyle, Price, Dumezweni — and Susan Hayward as Rose Granger-Wesley — stand out. As Voldemort, new-to-the-ensemble Byron Jennings is properly daunting.
In crafty plot twists, the child Harry (Will Coombs, alternating with Landon Maas) appears and the adolescent Albus, back in time, is positioned to save his doomed infant father. So here is an instance in which, in Wordsworth’s words, the child is father to the man. It’s yet another opportunity for Rowling to play (a little too obviously?) on her dedicated theme. Still, it’s a venerated theme and something splendid to experience.