Disclosure: the views in this post are my own. I was not compensated in any way for this post. I purchased my tickets and wrote my opinion. Photos are either McCrae's (he has a decent camera on his phone and I wasn't allowed to bring any photography gear to the play so I didn't take any photos) and Manuel Harlan (production photos).
I’ll admit: like many of my generation, I’m a Potterhead. I grew up with Harry Potter and dressed up for midnight book releases and midnight movie releases, including the one time I flew back from Germany, dropped off my suitcase at home and immediately headed to the movie theater. As a Potterhead I knew about the new play on London’s showy West End “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” - the eighth installment in the Harry Potter story. I also knew that all the shows were sold out through May 2017, including the preview shows that started in June (the show officially opened July 31, coinciding with Harry Potter’s birthday - and J. K. Rowling’s birthday for that matter). Even so, on Saturday afternoon when we just happened to be in the neighborhood and we just happened to walk past the Palace Theatre, its gorgeous brick facade done up in “can’t-miss-me” Harry Potter headlines, I figured it wouldn’t hurt if I went in and asked about tickets at the box office.
I still can’t believe I walked out of that box office with tickets for that Wednesday.
On Wednesday afternoon I showed up once again at the Palace Theatre with McCrae to view Harry Potter Parts I and II. The lines of people were immediately obvious - one queue wrapped around the building for admittance and another lined the streets in the desperate hope of a returned ticket. I’m still amazed at how luckily and easily I procured tickets on Saturday considering how many people have waited hours and hours for their golden ticket. And yes, the ticket is in fact golden.
It was a long afternoon and evening affair with Part I running 2 hours 40 minutes and Part II running 2 hours 35 minutes. Viewed back to back with just a 2.5 hour dinner break? Magical.
By the end of Part 1 I had goosebumps. At the nearby ramen shack where we stopped for dinner because the smell of creamy broth wafted deliciously over the sidewalk, my spine tingled. At the craft beer pub over some Cantillon and cider my fingers itched and my head spun trying to reason through the magical special effects. And truly, the special effects alone are worth seeing the play, balanced beautifully by some superb acting so that the story and the stagecraft never threaten to overwhelm each other, even if the plot progression became a bit predictable once the initial conflict was established (though that’s just my opinion; most of the audience members I talked to had no idea where the story was going).
But this is Harry Potter, and the epic storyline and plot twists are translated to the stage in more ways than its long running time. There are epic themes at play, not least the continuation of the original series’ emphasis on love and friendship, and the exploration of family ties across generations, but dissertations have already been written on these topics and will continue to be written with this new installment.
One notable theme on the stage is the interplay between what is seen and not seen - at times more magic show than just theatre, at times art of light and shadow on stage, and at times indicative of the plot in terms of seen and unseen consequences. Dark gloved hands and cloaks slip in and out of the stage lights to facilitate magical scene changes and tricks. Sleights of hand, misdirection, and pyrotechnics work the details of the beautiful stage props, the details of the story, and the details of Harry Potter lore.
Just as the audience may gasp at the special effects, so too do they gasp with the thrill of recognition - of a character’s mannerisms perfectly captured by the stage actors or at a melodic refrain or at a reference. Imogen Heap’s soundtrack augments the new and calls back to the past with subtle motifs from Heap’s previous albums - most noticeably with the lilt of “Hide and Seek” (which many from my generation should recognize from a certain “O.C.” TV show) - mingled with new melodies, echoing the ties between what is old and what is new and how those two relate. The show is referential without being derivative (unlike the reboot of Star Wars) and is respectful without the intent of erasure. It’s a nice visit to the Potter past while looking forward to the magical future.
And while the special effects are breath-taking they are also so elaborate that it’s impossible to have that “perfect” show when every bang goes off as it should, every fire sparks, every whoosh and whisk and flurry and swish is just right. In fact this performance wasn’t perfect and let slip the reality of a certain compelling trick, a disappointing gaffe just days before the official opening. But then nothing in theatre is truly perfect; even Broadway stars make the occasional mistake, and with such an elaborate stage for Harry Potter you’re guaranteed some errors. The show goes on with another development and another audience-awing moment.
And this is part of what is remarkable with producing the eighth installment of Harry Potter as a a play: what is so easy, so common, so expected now with movie CGI that it is mundane on the screen is suddenly new and exciting on the stage. It is, in a way, a rebirth of a story and a stage art for a new generation. Many of the Harry Potter audience members are under 35 and for even more this is the first play they have attended. Just as Harry Potter the books instilled in young readers a love for books, Harry Potter the play may inspire a love for live action theatre. And for those who are too young to have made it to any book midnight releases, they have the opportunity to experience the thrill of a Harry Potter release over and over again with every curtain rise. There were several young children wearing robes, scarves, and joyful smiles. Two siblings behind me in line even chattered happily about how they might still get their Hogwarts invitations as they were not yet eleven.
This is another aspect of the beauty of seeing Harry Potter live on a stage - it’s suddenly a communal experience. While we may have had the Potterhead community converge for midnight releases for books, it was still a solitary act of reading alone through the night and through the next day, zombie-like and sleep-deprived until every word on the page was consumed. But you read alone and you interpret and experience the story by yourself through reading. Even at the film releases it was solitary: once the cinema lights dimmed you lost contact with your fellow audience members and you watched a recording with a disconnect from real time. With live theatre, the only suspension you experience is the suspension of disbelief. You automatically have a connection to everyone in the audience and everyone on the stage through a real, human, and shared experience - an entirely different experience in this world of headphones and phone screens and selfies and fewer face-to-face interactions. We were more than voyeurs - we were a community.
For many, this installment may be the much-needed closure demanded by fans for some story details that have haunted readers. But is that closure too little too late? It’s been 9 years since the last Harry Potter book was released and 5 years since the last movie was released. Is it good to resurrect the Harry Potter story - not just for J. K. Rowling as a writer but for the fans? For the most voracious fans that answer will be a resounding “YES” but for some of us, is it good to revisit the past? The answer is ambiguous, even too for Harry as a character exploring some of his flaws and how badly they glare in a grown-up version of a beloved but imperfect character.
Overall it’s a beautiful production with stellar performances from Noma Dumezweni (Hermione, and yes, she’s fantastic in the role, silencing any of the early detractors who said Hermione had to be a white woman), Jamie Parker (Harry), Poppy Miller (Ginny), Alex Price (Draco), Anthony Boyle (Scorpius Malfoy), and Sam Clemett (Albus Potter). The story develops well, with only a few slow moments, evidence of the careful work by playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. The production is beautifully executed, with superb set by Christine Jones, costumes by Katrina Lindsay, and fantastic choreography by Steven Hoggett. And of course, the lighting (Neil Austin), sound (Gareth Fry), special effects (Jeremy Chernick), and illusions (Jamie Harrison) are unparalleled. It is truly an experience to watch Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on stage, and I expect the show to sell out long after May 2017.
The play is open now at the Palace Theatre in London. The play's script is available at bookstores. Tickets are currently sold out, but additional tickets will be released on August 4 and 40 tickets are released every Friday for the upcoming week. Inquire at the box office for any returned tickets or for more information on tickets and show schedule.
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