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“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child Parts One And Two” At the Palace Theatre, London, England, September 17th, 2016

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SPOILER ALERT: If you have neither read “Harry Potter And The Cursed Child”, nor made the pilgrimage to see it at the Palace Theatre, you will learn more than you might want to by reading this review.

When a pop guy takes on background music, say Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, he does so by twisting out of his strengths that were and not merging them with the skills necessary to write soundtracks. Imogen Heap, who composed the background music for “Harry Potter And The Cursed Child Parts One And Two”, once you know it is her, you will know it is her. The trebly echo effects that recur in the second act, the brooding, as opposed to fascist anthem, you might expect, that opens “Part Two”, the entire tempered tenseness of the uncluttered synths and back tapes, they all  feel like signature moments of her sound. Similar to Imogen’s work with Taylor Swift on “Clean”, similar to the effects on her own “Hide And Seek, it is all unique  buzziness that seems to be a link between Kate Bush and Karen O and John Barry. During the theatrical product that is “The Cursed Child ” ,Imogen  is quite herself and deep inside the Harry Potter world: it is both tantalized and eerie, an unnerving biosphere of the world it is in. Completely perfect and a total anomaly. Here lies the secret of the latest episode in the Harry Potter world: it is a theatrical experience totally itself as alive in  JK Rowling’s universe,  and entirely a part of the theatre, more than the books, more than the movies or theme parks, theatre is what Harry is born for.

“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child ” is one of the three top theatrical experiences of my life. It is on a par with the 1995 Lincoln Center production of  Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and Tony Kushner’s two part  “Angels In America” . Like “Arcadia”, “Cursed” moves through time and like “Angels” it takes two parts to tell its story. As a play, it is much worse than both. The plotting and characters are fine, but the dialogue is banal, and its children books roots trips it, as the language just about never ever soars. When the book of the play was released, you could hear the howls of outrage as to how the book was, in fact, not a novel at all. Perhaps Rowling could have gotten away with the sleight of hand if it was a better play. Some great plays can be read, “Arcadia” certainly has a second life on the printed page, but “Cursed” is a visually intoxicating staged magic act deep story continuation of the seven novels , that is rooted on the stage. This is not what you might believe you were going to get from the  five hour, two play experience (I know the length because I timed it): it feels like it should be  an adjunct, a post script, and the book of the play was certainly treated that way, but it isn’t. If you’ve read it you may think you’ve seen it, and you haven’t.

The Harry Potter novels began life as  a magical update of “The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen” plus Enid Blyton children’s books, especially the Famous Five with its terrific description of meals and eating, very, very English. And most English of all,  Thomas Hughes’ 1857  “Tom Brown Schooldays”:  The public (which means private) boarding school  breeding ground for the ruling class world of prefects and rugger (here Quidditch), school bullies, and swats, given a magical flip. In 2016, the likes of Chris Martin and  Thom Yorke, the definition of wets, those are the inhabitants of Public School life grown up -so am I. What many Yanks do for college, we did at six, seven, Harry Potter was eleven, leave our families  and stand on our own two feet. An expensive world, look how the Weasley’s struggles, think of Potters trip to Ingots: this is a world of money in a world of royalty. The boy that lives is a Prince regent and the UKs crumbled class structure is below the surface of at least the first three books. I am assuming you know the stories but really fast: Voldemort is Hitler, wanting to rid the witching world (Germany) of half breed witches and warlocks (Jews). Potter is the Jewish Jesus surrogate who finally beats Voldemort   with his two friends smarty Hermione and working class hero Ron’s help. The final book of the series “Deadly Hollows” ends with a flash forward of nineteen years and Harry sending his son Albus to Hogwarts. Albus is a quiet, insecure , brooding boy, worried about being  forced to Slytherine house -if Jesus had had a son, imagine how it would feel trying to live up to those expectations? Albus is a sensitive kid with those kinda problems. .

That is exactly where “Cursed” begins and precisely what one of the cursed children’s curse is. There are three cursed children in the play, Albus, Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Potter nemesis Draco Malfoy, and the third is Delphi Diggory. Albus is an anti-Harry, he is in Slytherin and not Gryffindor, he isn’t a very good wizard, and except for his best friend Scorpius, he doesn’t have any friends. In the shadow of his brother, at war with his father, and ready to rebel against Hogwarts, or at least put his name there, this is the story of the Albus  opportunity. Sam Clemmett is good as the son, a square faced, sullen pain in the neck, who refuses to make nice with his father. As Ginny (an underwritten role for Poppy Miller) notes, he won’t allow his father to put on his Harry mask. Sam is remarkably good but Anthony Boyle as Scorpius steals the play. Scorpius, the son of a former Death Eater (read Stormtrooper) and one of the great pure blood families, is a weakling, a friendless scaredy-cat whose mother has died of cancer and whose father is ashamed of him. Rumor has it that Scorpius is the son of Voldemort, and this isolates him more than ever. Boyle’s performance is so sweet and funny, so central and yet to the side (“the spare” is the brutal word), that it is surprising how central a figure he is. Part of that is the role itself, the second best in the play, and part of that a performance that should win him an Olivier next year. Boyle blends weakness with hidden strength, and the friendship between the two boys is better than Ron  and Harry in the novels. I said it was the second best role because the grown up Harry is the best written and best performed in the play. Potter at 37 years of age, has settled into middle age with a compliant boredom, he is like Paul McCartney if Paul McCartney had retired after Abbey Road. Instantly recognizable, very famous, very important, but also a little besides the point. Jamie Parker (who was sick between plays the day I went and replaced by Stuart Ramsey), gives a complex, intelligent performance: he is entirely believable as an adult Potter (more believable than the adult now Daniel Radcliffe). There is a suggestion of the midlife crises about Parker’s Potter, he looks both harried and bored; Parker almost works apart from  the pure text: bored with the paperwork as the Head Of Magical Law Enforcement, he is palpably unhappy with his life, his wife, his family: he misses something and his love for Albus, while deep, is also charged with a missing part. The crux of the story is that relationship but because Harry doesn’t understand it, he can’t reach his son.

Albus and Scorpius first three years at Hogwarts, rush by in a brisk and beautiful scene, choreographed by movement director Steven Hoggett, who along with Illusions and Magic manager Jamie Harrison., has you suspending all disbelief instantly. It is all black cloaks being drawn and light effects changing time periods, This really is a very magical experience, myself and my friend, the brilliantly named Lucy Wagemaker, were both completely mesmerized, completely with the story. When Dementors (ghostly apparitions who suck your soul out of your body if they are pissed off) came down from the ceiling, Lucy nearly jumped out of her skin: the world of Potter stopped you from thinking too hard about what was real and what wasn’t. The Palace Theatre is a glorious room for just that, dating back to 1891 and teeming with ghosts itself, it has been home to stars as great as the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire, Laurence Olivier and Judi Dench (as Sally Bowles!). “Jesus Christ Superstar”  premiered here in the early 70s and was followed by a nineteen year run for “Les Misérables” starting in 1985. Assume “Cursed” never leaves. The one problem the play will have when it inevitably opens on Broadway (my bet? 2018) will be that the Palace is of a piece with Hogwarts, they have history that can’t be repeated, I’d arrived in London a couple of hours earlier and was feeling a little loopy, and between the play and the theatre, it was all so transformative, as though I’d landed in the other world, and was watching the story unspool as some form of virtual reality. If what happens to me happens to you, and if you have as deep a love for Potter as I do, the effect is off the other, like entering a world where the fiction is in front of you, the magical world of Potter is real. My companion was the daughter of a friend I hadn’t seen in decades and it was very peculiar and moving and seemed to reflect the plays themes of time and space and family.

The plot kicks in with the third year  when a “Time Turner” (you can go to the past but only for five minutes) falls into the hands of the Ministry Of Magic, headed by Hermioine Granger and comes to the attention of Amos Diggory who wants to use it to save his son Cedric, who died at the end of “Goblet Of Fire”, Albus and Amos’ niece Delphi, hatch a plot to go back in time and save the son. Scorpius join the duo as things go from bad to worse to much, much worse. Borrowing liberally from the “Back To The Future” movies, by the end of Part One, the changes to the past have lead to the return of Voldemort in the new present. If this sounds all a little fan fiction, it doesn’t play that way. With a story by Rowling, and Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, and directed by Tiffany, the trio  are entirely expert even while Jack and John have never worked on this scale (43 character cast) before. John  directed the big hit  “Once”  and wrote the play. The duo were the writers of the preteen vampire movie “Let The Right One In” -not a bad experience setting em up  for this. Part Two, takes us to the very beginning of the Potter legend, the death of Harry’s parents and the backfiring of a death curse that left a scar on his forehead and Voldemort near death. All the main characters in the past watching it all begin.

There are problems here, as I’ve mentioned the play isn’t very good as a play, also some of the most important characters are poorly written. In every alternative reality they visit, Ron Weasley is a weakling and a sop, and a huge disappointment. Why did they do that to a terrific character? He becomes a sorry side show and Paul Thornley does what he can but what can he do? The Malfoys, father (Alex Price -manages the transformation from villain to hero very well) and son, replace Ron in the Potter world, it takes em both, but it is done. Hermione Granger is a brittle and unpleasant character and Noma Dumezweni is terrible in the role and not because she is black, that’s the least of her worries. The right black or Asian or Italian actress could have played the role, though Granger is a grumpy, nasty so and so: she’s an inverted Mary Bailey (of “It’s A Wonderful Life”),  if George never existed,   overpowering a henpecked and harried Ron. It is very distressing. they needed a harsher actor for Ron and a softer actor for Granger: that’s why Emma Watson worked, she had a gentleness under the bravado (the scene in the first movie where she runs off crying does it). Lupita Nyong’o would be perfect for the role, they should get her for the inevitable movie (2021?).

Nothing weakens it, nothing loosens “Cursed”‘s grip on us, Rowling’s world never stales, never bores. Though a children’s show in theory, if you were seven years old when “Sorcerers Stone” was published, you are 26 years old today, so define child? Really, it is too scary, too deep, too multi-layered a diagram of children and their parents, to be in any sense an age bound experience. In the Potter biosphere, “Cursed Child” is better than all the movies and the only book its equal is “Prisoner Of Azkaban”. I know I speak for Lucy as well, when I call it one of the greatest things I’ve seen in any medium. Sold out through the end of 2017, jump on the next batch of tickets when they release em, you don’t want to wait ten years before you can get a ticket. As for Broadway, it will take over from “Hamilton”  and then some, a terrific achievement and an experience not be missed.

Grade: A+

 

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