Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Palace Theatre, London)

Did anyone actually expect Harry Potter on stage to be half decent? Yes, 12 months ago we all queued for hours in the hope of bagging some tickets as early in the run as possible. Yes, it comes off the back of a hugely successful series of books and (arguably) iconic movies. But, wizards and magic on stage? Really…?

Queuing up to get inside the Palace on the day of the performance was a battle in itself (I’m sorry to say that more than one fan was the recipient of a muttered curse or two), but it’s rare to see a west end theatre so flocked to; ticket holders were waiting eagerly to get inside, as fans stopped and caused chaos all around the front taking pictures of the marquee. The selfie stick strikes again…

Even if the flocks of tourists are causing havoc for anyone who wants to simply walk by, they’re a sign of the popularity of the brand and a sign that we won’t be seeing anything new going into the Palace anytime soon. But let’s be honest, if this had been terrible, the producers would still be eating well for many Christmases to come. Thankfully, I’m pleased to say that any fears of this being a howler are defunct, because what’s been crafted is arguably one of the best things London theatre has ever seen.

Direction by John Tiffany – First up, don’t go in expecting this to feel like the movies. In many ways, it feels truer to the tone of the earlier Harry Potter books, and Tiffany has done a mighty fine job of balancing the darker side of the HP universe with the playfulness of the original novels. Scene changes fly by with a whip of a cape or two (literally) and there’s a light-heartedness to the overall tone that takes the world so many have grown up with and plants it firmly in the realms of theatre.

It’s in the darker moments when Tiffany excels with his direction, and he has some real fun conjuring one situation after another. He knows full well that he’s directing for an audience more engaged than any other, and he does a jolly good job of grabbing their stomachs, giving them a squeeze and then leaving them hanging in horror. It’s his inventiveness with the material and his lack of fear to shake up our expectations of the Harry Potter world that make what he’s crafted a true pleasure to watch. And it’s never more evident just how right he has got it than at the end of Part 1 when a level of fear and (quite frankly) awe comes over the audience that no movie could ever match.

Writing by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling – Just how much influence Rowling has had over the story is up for debate, and many a purist has written this off as fan fiction. But regardless, it has her seal of money-making approval and that’ll do for me. It’s true that sometimes this does feel a bit like the best bits of the Harry Potter books plastered together into one story, but if the script delves too much into the already-established canon, that’s the result of trying to please too many fans with some familiar faces rather than bad storytelling. This is Harry Potter meets Back to the Future, and it’s a bloody good ride, with enough tension, drama and humour to keep you gripped for the full five hours. And for anyone who doubted whether two parts were actually necessary, it’s hard to pick more than a handful of scenes that could have been removed without it becoming unnecessarily stifled.

Set design by Christine Jones – This is a real lesson in less is more. In fact, there’s really not much in the way of a set at all. Framed by a series of arches that are part-Victorian train station, part-Hogwarts, the only real additions are the odd doorway, table or staircase, and even they are used sparingly. But it never feels sparse or ambiguous, and that’s partly because of the way that the cast are used to evoke each environment along with some clever placement of suitcases. Jones also uses the stage to its absolute fullest, with quite frankly the best use of trap doors and lifts I’ve seen, and a revolve that (hallelujah!) is used when it’s needed rather than just because it’s there!

Movement direction by Steven Hoggett – It’s not often I get to talk about movement in a play, but it’s very fitting with Cursed Child, particularly as it’s Hoggett’s direction that helps maintain the pace of the production. I don’t want to call it choreography as it’s more synchronised movement, but the effect (combined with some cape whipping that would put bull fighters to shame) is often mesmerising. In Part 2, we’re even treated to what can only be described as a staircase ballet that I found myself not wanting to end.

Music by Imogen Heap – I don’t have fond memories of Imogen Heap. The one song of hers that I (and most people) remember, ‘Hide and Seek’, was a particular favourite of a previous housemate, who chose to play it at all hours of the day and night. So I went into this with some trepidation, expecting plenty of monotonous electronic noises and choral sounds. Boy, was I wrong. Arguably one of the strongest elements of the production, it perfectly matched the tone of the production, with enough variation to keep the overall sound design feeling fresh throughout. It’s a welcome break from the trendy low rumbling that seems to invade so many productions these days (or is that just the tube I’m hearing?) and part of me is hoping that they choose to release some of the key moments so I can listen again.

The cast – Getting sick of my gushing? It won’t end here. First up, the ensemble have to be one of the hardest working in the west end. They really are core to making this feel like a populated and believable world, and so are constantly on and off stage, taking on different characters, dragging on set pieces and being all round good eggs. There are far too many principle characters to talk about, but praise has to go to Sam Clemmett and Anthony Boyle as Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, who really carry the production from start to finish. Jamie Parker, Noma Dumezweni and Paul Thornley are beyond perfect as the main trio of Harry, Hermione and Ron, bearing just enough resemblance to their childhood selves, but still showing significant character development. Special mention has to go to Poppy Miller who dragged Ginny from the shadows and made her a completely three dimensional character in a way that neither book nor film managed.

  • Sam Clemmett (Albus Potter)
  • Anthony Boyle (Scorpius Malfoy)
  • Jamie Parker (Harry Potter)
  • Noma Dumezweni (Hermione Granger)
  • Paul Thornley (Ron Weasley)

Verdict: ★★★★★

Sprint your way there if you can bag yourself a seat. In fact, pack up a camping chair and perch up outside to revel in the atmosphere and buzz surrounding the Palace. It’s refreshing to see something in the west end so original, pulling out all the stops. This is an absolute masterclass in theatre, bringing together the best of every discipline to create something that will have you lining up in online queues for years as you try to make a return visit.

Have I gushed enough?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is playing at the Palace Theatre until (probably) forever. Tickets are pretty much going to be sold out no matter when you’re reading this, but head on over to the main site to find out more about your options!

And the view…

Stalls, row BB, seat 14. This was an incredible seat, giving an almost perfect view of the stage. The stage may be a little high for some from this spot and you’ll find yourself looking up a fair bit, but it was a comfortable viewing angle for me and there’s no chance of you missing anything. Surprisingly, the seats were also quite comfortable – a good job when you’re there for five hours.

Palace Theatre, Stalls, Row BB, Seat 14

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