After a tortuous few months avoiding all spoilers and dreading how bad it could potentially be, I finally got to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre. And now I finally get to write my review. As you can expect, it is full of spoilers.
Written by Jack Thorne and (supposedly) based on a story by Thorne, John Tiffany, and JK Rowling herself, Cursed Child is a two-parter play that began showing previews in June 2016. When I bought the tickets (snatching up the earliest ones I could after queuing from the start) I only had to avoid spoilers from the privileged few that had the time and money to go to the play before me. Then the printed version was released. Suddenly I had an entire fandom’s worth of people to avoid. It was hard. I knew of two big ones before I reached November. My sister was luckier – not an obsessive Potter fan on social media made remaining spoiler free easier. The spoilers did not fill me with hope and I had exactly one positive review from friends. Had I wasted my money?
The weekend of my seeing Cursed Child finally arrived and my sister and I dutifully allowed our bags to be searched before filing into the theatre. Jenny’s elderflower drink that she had literally just bought was confiscated. Note to other theatre goers: no glass bottles. Palace Theatre was pretty but sparsely decorated. Unlike Wicked and most other big West End plays, Cursed Child didn’t have a patterned curtain to hide the stage and all we could see was wooden floorboards and a collection of trunks. Interesting. The seating was… an experience. I had apparently selected nosebleed seats – we were very high up and there was a steep gradient. We feared using our phones because there was a very real fear that one slip would send them into the orchestra far below us. The seats are also unusually narrow. No ball-sprawling! To seal the discomfort deal, the first night was rather chilly while the second was over-warm. Not the greatest set up for the length of time we were spending there. Interesting to look at and a great history but not the kind of place you really want to spend 5+ hours of life.
Now for the spoilerific review section. The play itself is wonderfully done. Cursed Child‘s staging remained sparse throughout, often utilising those initial cases to create the set or moving the same two staircases around for an array of locations. From a theatrical perspective, I found this fascinating. It was so streamlined and used many of the techniques I remember from doing Standard Grade drama. Their set transitions too used a lot of drama class techniques, with actors spinning across the stage in choreographed sequences to switch things around. It was not what I was used to for a professional production and bordered on bizarre for the otherwise quite serious Potter play but it was definitely intriguing.
Some of the magic used in Cursed Child was utterly spellbinding. Duels, understandably, largely relied on the actor’s skill and thus were not hugely interesting. It was the little magic moments that stole the show. Polyjuice transformations were seamless with one actor replacing another (presumably) using large cloaks and holes in the floor. Furniture was rearranged with what I assume were strings and pulleys but it was done so perfectly that you could believe it was magic. The reveal of the writing on the walls (above the audience – great moment) though clearly using UV light made the whole audience gasp. And the entry to the ministry sequences… I still have no idea how that part worked. One second the actors would be standing in the telephone box, fully visible to the audience and no where to escape to, and then suddenly they would be sucked cloak first into the phone. It didn’t matter how many times I watched it, I just couldn’t work it out.
The biggest thing I can’t fault in Cursed Child is, however, the casting. The actors were brilliant. And the way they were used for multiple roles was also brilliant. Of the old crew, Jamie Parker’s Harry Potter was reminiscent of Daniel Radcliffe in Prisoner of Azkaban in tone and vulnerability, but thankfully not as uncomfortably over-acted. Noma Dumezweni as Hermione was flawless. You could honestly believe her ageing process from the Hermione we knew in the books to the Hermione we saw in the play. Paul Thornley as Ron was, as in the films, I feel underused but thankfully, unlike the films, was not purely there for comedic effect. He was funny but seemed satisfied with his life – the comedy was not down to his lack of value compared to Harry. Though in the background for much of it, he was my favourite. Alex Price’s Draco Malfoy was brilliant. Similar in a lot of ways to his father’s PTA mum-ness, looking to protect his reputation but not for his own sake, vulnerable but willing to expose himself to make things better. My main disappointment of the original characters was McGonagall, not because she wasn’t well acted but because she was used as a tool. She would shout and protest about things because that was what the script required. It felt wrong. And it ignored the fact that JK had previously said that McGonagall would have retired by this point…
The new crew in Cursed Child was also pretty well done. Sam Clemmett as Albus Severus Potter played it very close to what Harry was like in the books (though perhaps with more nuance than the young DanRad) and did attract your gaze when on stage. Anthony Boyle as Scorpious Malfoy was brilliantly funny but also sympathetic. He carried both halves of the play with ease and it probably wouldn’t have worked as well without his self-depreciating humour. And Ester Smith as Delphi Diggory is a disturbing but brilliant mix of Luna Lovegood and Bellatrix Lestrange. Horrifying but rather endearing.
Honestly though, I’m really glad that I didn’t read the book before going to see Cursed Child because I think I would have hated it. The plot is dire. It’s trash. I’ve read badly spelled, cliché-ridden fanfiction that was better. It IS cliche-ridden fanfiction. Even without spoilers, I could see what was going to happen within the first couple of sequences. It ripped so many overdone elements to build a mishmashed, trite adventure and a good portion of it completely contradicted established canon to do so. Remember the time turners getting destroyed in Order of the Pheonix? That JK Rowling said that she’d destroyed because of the ridiculous plot holes they allowed for? They’re in Cursed Child! Remember the dark lord Voldemort, a man incapable of love? He got busy with his psycho second in command and had a secret love child. Apparently he was okay with sex. And her husband was okay with her doing the dirty on him. Remember Harry’s scar never hurting again? It hurts! And Albus Severus, who had a comforting conversation with his father before getting on the Hogwarts Express about him going in to Slytherin not being a problem? Yep, it’s a problem.
Character issues get to me too. Nineteen years later and Cursed Child‘s Harry Potter has apparently not changed at all. Fatherhood, marriage, and achieving a lofty ministry position has not moved him on from the angst-ridden boy he once was. He confides only in Hermione, not his best friend Ron (who, being the most adjusted of all the characters, would probably be the best shout) and not his wife Ginny. He blames his son for not being what he wanted even though he has been on the other end of that treatment. And Petunia is dead. Is there something wrong with Harry’s family that everybody dies young? Even if she had died only the year before (and it is implied that it has in fact been several years) she would have been, at most, like 60/70. That’s still pretty young. His mother died at 21. Her parents would also have had to die young, having been unable to take Harry in after her death. Just anything involving 50-ish year old Harry seemed messed up because it implied that he had had absolutely no progression as a human during the 19 year interlude. Albus, though similarly frustrating for his angst-ridden bad decisions, at least had the excuse of being a teenager.
Only one part of the actual story held any genuine interest to me: the loss of Astoria Malfoy. Her death came as a genuine surprise and, though part of the background, provided a great level of emotion and motivation for some of the characters in Cursed Child. The Malfoys in general, along with Ron, had good motives and character progression. Everyone else was a bit of a disappointment. Hermione seemed to ignore her husband and family a lot, more interested in Harry’s mess, but at least there were some touches that felt believable. And I like that Thorne didn’t follow JK’s sudden belief that Hermione and Ron shouldn’t be together – there is constant reference to them being in love and their relationship seems to work quite well (mainly thanks to Ron). Ginny seems like she’s suffered. Her relationship with Harry looks rockier than a mountain. And Albus is the cliched “famous parents, I’m inadequate” child. Boring.
The Cursed Child play itself, through production and acting, is impressive but the writing is not. I could have done better. Fourteen year old me, who did indeed write a piece of fanfiction where Voldemort had a child, could have done better. At least mine had good motives for Voldy getting his rocks off and Harry having an incredibly problem-filled relationship with one of his children. And it didn’t force in time-turners or some crap about a blanket (I was with you there Albus!). The magic was there but it didn’t feel like JK Rowling’s Potter. I don’t believe she helped write it. Too much went back on what she had said previously. And so I’m left wondering about the motivations. Why this story? Why, when she had said that Harry’s story was finished, did she allow this mess to be published in her name? Why did no one work harder to push past the easiest choices and the obvious plot devices to create a story that was worth publishing?
Overall, Cursed Child as a play is somewhat worth it for the production and the casting. Switch off your brain for a few hours and just enjoy the magic. It should never have been published though. Writing-wise, it’s just not worth the money. If you need some good fanfics, I can probably point you to a few. Like seriously, just ask. Though I’m almost tempted to say that even My Immortal was better than this. At least that had some unexpected twists.
Pictures gathered from Time, News Week, and the West End website.