John Tiffany's startling production of the eighth story in the Harry Potter series charms fans and Muggles alike in the theatrical event of the year 2016
“People say parenting is the hardest job in the world. They’re wrong. Growing up is.”
British theatre has so much to be grateful for to JK Rowling. She has ensured the old age pensions of so many of our best stage actors by giving them roles in her multi-million pound film spin off that is the Harry Potter phenomenon. She has ensured that many children have become passionate readers after introducing them to her work and now she will introduce the magic of theatre to a whole new generation.
What better director to choose than John Tiffany whose production of Gregory Burke’s Black Watch is for me the best play of the last twenty years?
Producers Sonia Friedman and Collin Callender met with some of the Critics’ Circle in March to talk about the origins of the show and to discuss how to “Keep The Secrets” and make sure that people do not stumble upon spoilers which might detract from the excitement of making their own discovery. So it is with this critical code that I am bound not to disclose moments of surprise and wonder of which there are many in this production. I also cannot reveal any plot denouement so the audience can try to guess this for themselves across both parts of this five and a half hour experience.
Friedman told us how she had gone to JK Rowling with the idea of a new play, not based on any of the seven existing novels but about Harry as a parent of a difficult “middle child” and drawing on Harry’s own unhappy childhood experience under the stairs with the nasty Dursleys, his Aunt Petunia, her husband Victor and his unpleasant cousin Dudley. John Tiffany was brought on board to direct, Jack Thorne to co-write and AKA, the company that kept the “secret” of the latest Star Wars movie, to handle the marketing, advertising and promotion.
I was invited to a press performance and sat in the Stalls which were exceptionally good seats. I have to confess that I’d also bought tickets for the first all day preview. That time I sat in the fourth row back in the Grand Circle which is the one above the Royal Circle and saw both plays on one day. I remember seeing Les Misérables from the same circle seats and being impressed at how well you can see a large, expansive show from here. The excitement on that day with so many fans in Hogwarts School uniform was incredible.
The play text went on sale at midnight today and the bookshops were opening specially.
It will be a challenge for many fans to find they have bought a script, a play text, rather than a novel. Thousands more seats will go on sale on Thursday August 4th and the official website is www.HarryPotterthePlay.com for details of the weekly release of extra seats.
The first sight of the stage is of an old railway clock and piles of leather luggage, rather reminiscent of sets for Chekhov at the National Theatre in the 1990s. Gothic arches mean that this looks more like George Gilbert Scott’s red brick, ornate St Pancras station, which itself looks so like the Palace Theatre at Cambridge Circus, rather than Kings Cross station now largely modernized, but which is the setting of the Harry Potter novels.
Nineteen years after Book Seven ended, we are at the station for the Potters (Jamie Parker as Harry and Poppy Miller as his wife Ginny) to see their second son Albus Severus Potter (Sam Clemmett) off to Hogwarts School for the first time. Also there is Albus’ cousin the supremely confident Rose (Cherrelle Skeete), daughter of Hermione (Noma Dumezweni) and Ron Weasley (the amusing Paul Thornley). Albus is being teased by his older brother, James Potter Jnr (Tom Milligan).
On the train Albus meets Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle), son of Harry’s schoolboy Slytherin adversary Draco Malfoy, who introduces himself as friendless. Scorpius tells Harry he is shunned by many for his suspect parentage. The adventure will see Albus and Scorpius together trying to right a wrong from Harry’s time at Hogwarts. Smoke and the noise of a steam train will recreate the Hogwarts Express and luggage trolleys form the seats of a carriage with the ubiquitous leather suitcases. On arrival at Hogwarts, Albus will be sorted by the Sorting Hat (Chris Jarman) into his school house. The Sorting Hat wears a brown Derby but with a Homburg type dent on the crown.
Spontaneous applause comes from the audience at each of the magic transformations and illusions on stage from Jamie Harrison. The audience also will react with Ooohs! and Aaahs! to names of unseen individual characters, and if you are there as I was, with only rudimentary knowledge of the Harry Potter books, the programme has a good synopsis of the seven novels. I confess to only having read all of Book One and half way through Book Two, to having seen the films of One and Two and picked up some of the other news from my children devouring all seven novels. How was it possible to live through the last 20 years without the Harry Potter culture invading the news stories?
Every scene change is choreographed with swishing cloaks and swirling action and the movement is out of this world. Steven Hoggett is a wonderful movement director. The symmetry of the cast is jaw dropping. They dance with wands that burst into flames. How do they make the set wobble and quiver? There are staircases which come together and are pulled apart as if they are waltzing. There is always something to watch to keep the visual interest going. A visit to a scene dominated by Slytherins has a dance with exciting menace and dramatic punchiness. The music is mostly like film music, a tad obvious, but with Hebridean type chanting in places for a feeling of cloud shrouded mystery.
The casting has been done carefully and sympathetically and, apart from some lack of understanding from the public at a black actress playing the grown up Hermione, has been well received. Noma Dumezweni has all the deep voiced authority of the grown up ultra competent, capable Hermione, now someone very important at the Ministry of Magic. In my opinion it is a brilliant casting choice, as well as its impact in diversifying the main cast characters.
Jamie Parker, whom I prefer in straight actor roles as opposed to musicals, is a perfect adult Harry, conflicted by his frightening past and not knowing how to relate to Albus. Tall red-headed Paul Thornley is so endearing as Ron Weasley in his affection for his wife and he is really funny as well. He would be my main contender for most liked character in these plays. Poppy Miller too has the solidity and compassion that Harry needs from his wife Ginny.
Highlights for me are Myrtle (Annabel Baldwin) who would prefer not to be called “Moaning Myrtle” who combines a kind of flirty, vampish sexuality with a child like persona and made me laugh and laugh. I loved Alex Price’s Draco with the most gorgeous, long blonde partially French plaited hair and ponytail and a stylish black suit with detailing and, perhaps more importantly, no nasty character traits. While Sam Clemmett’s Albus is a sweet boy, I was charmed by Anthony Boyle’s maladroit, gauche and hapless Malfoy junior with his lanky height and his father’s stand out hair colour.
Act One closes on a spectacular flight into the audience and Act Two, a darker prospect, opens with the same threat from the Dark Lord. There are no live owls in the play after, at an early preview, the trained owl flew into the audience. However you can buy soft toy Hedwigs, tee shirts and school house ties at the themed shop, the queues for which snake around and down the stairs. I am so proud that NIMAX theatres and the producers have not hiked up the prices for icecreams and souvenirs.
Even if the story line with its magic, spells and wands doesn’t immediately grip me, I still found these two plays hugely enjoyable for Steven Hoggett’s dazzling choreography, John Tiffany’s direction and Neil Austin’s lighting. The characterization too seems loyal to the books and exploring the relationship between how we grow up and what we become, does indeed interest me.
In any case these plays are critic proof. They are also much, much better than a crowd pleaser, a brilliant example of how live drama, can transport you to another world of fantasy and thrills. I can safely predict they will feature in the theatre awards for 2016 for ground breaking movement, direction and lighting and I hope the show will inspire a love of theatre for so many.
Harry Potter and The Cursed Child
Based on an original new story by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany
A new play written by Jack Thorne
Directed by John Tiffany
Jeremy Ang Jones
James Le Lacheur
Director: John Tiffany
Movement Director: Steven Hoggett
Set Designer: Christine Jones
Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
Composer and Arranger: Imogen Heap
Illusions and Magic: Jamie Harrison
Musical Supervisor and Arranger: Martin Lowe
Running Times: Part One – Two hours 40 minutes with an interval
Part Two – Two hours 35 minutes with an interval
Booking: from 24th February 2021
The Palace Theatre
109 Shaftesbury Avenue
London W1D 5AY
Phone: 0330 333 4813
Tube: Leicester Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Palace Theatre on 28th and 29th July 2016