Like many folks of a certain age, I came to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series through a reader much younger than myself. I’d never been much of a fantasy buff, as I initially warned my daughter, and was drawn more to the majestically shot, winningly acted film adaptations than to the novels themselves. Then about two years ago, shortly before her ninth birthday, I was asked to review the two-part play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London, and took her along; this time, after seeing the play—which follows the world-famous boy wizard as a man, with a wife and kids—we both dove into the rehearsal script with relish.
As winning as the Potter movies are, there’s something about seeing Rowling’s wizards, witches and Muggles—non-magical folk, in Potter parlance—presented in the flesh that drives home their essential, well, humanity. It helps that the Brits have long had a flair for summoning the fantastic and spectacular on stage with wit and discretion, qualities evident years ago in the National Theatre’s stunning adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and in the more earthbound The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, which also transferred to Broadway.
I can happily report that Cursed Child has arrived in New York with those assets intact, along with an even more essential element in the Potter books and films: emotional and moral complexity. Anyone who has viewed Harry’s mission to save the wizarding world from destructive forces as a simple matter of courage obliterating evil doesn’t appreciate the fears, flaws and internal conflicts Rowling infused in her young hero and his protectors and tormentors (not all of them mutually exclusive).
Conceived by Rowling, celebrated director John Tiffany (last represented on Broadway with a radiant revival of The Glass Menagerie) and playwright/screenwriter Jack Thorne, Cursed Child was written by Thorne, whose gift for finding shades of grey in the fairest surfaces and darkest corners—recently on display in the brilliant British TV series National Treasure, available on Hulu—makes him an ideal interpreter. The play begins where the epilogue of the series’ final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, left off: in a train station, where Harry and fellow adventurers Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, now in early middle age, are sending their own children off to their alma mater, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Harry, played by Jamie Parker—one of seven principal actors from the original London cast, all terrific, featured here—is now married to Ginny, Ron’s sister, with whom he has three children. Their younger son, Albus, and his strained relationship with his legendary dad lay the foundation for everything that happens in both parts of Cursed Child, which clock in at just over five hours combined. Harry, the boy who lived, has grown into a man with a gnawing sense of survivor’s guilt, fallout from the danger and carnage that have trailed him since his young parents were murdered.
Harry worries specifically about Albus, who has become a sullen and lonely teenager, his only friend at Hogwarts the son of Harry’s former school adversary, Draco Malfoy, a rather sunnier lad named Scorpius. As marvelously played by Sam Clemmett and Anthony Boyle, respectively, Albus and Scorpius summon a mischievous rapport that is tested and, eventually, made more tender as both boys grapple with their legacies and are swept into new adventures involving a Time-Turner, an alternate reality and tasks as daunting and terrifying as any that befell Harry.
Old and new characters pop up along the way, but to identify them (one in particular) would require dangling massive spoilers. The focus, besides, is on the challenges faced and growth experienced by the books’ central group of friends—and Draco, who has aged into a more sympathetic fellow (and an often funny one, in Alex Price’s robust performance)—and their progeny. The women, tellingly, prove more patently indomitable: Hermione, the precocious daughter of Muggles, has matured into the most powerful figure in the wizarding world—leader of the Ministry of Magic—and is imbued with unfussy gravitas by the radiant Noma Dumezweni. Ginny, played with similarly unmannered dignity and warmth by Poppy Miller, is just as stalwart a force in Harry’s life, as well as a patient minder to goofy Ron (Paul Thornley, droll and endearing), now Hermione’s husband and affectionate foil.
Christine Jones’s richly handsome but essentially minimal set provides the perfect canvas for Jamie Harrison’s tastefully spine-tingling illusions and magic effects, which include spinning clocks, bursts of fire and light and creatures hovering ominously over the stage and audience. Imogen Heap’s atmospheric incidental music and Stephen Hoggett’s typically vital choreography—called “movement” here, as it’s dominated by simple but vivid whirling and swaying—add to the staging’s otherworldly ambience.
But the core of Cursed Child’s appeal lies in its more grounded aspects, like the basically naturalistic dialogue (references to developments in the book are generally given enough context to avoid stumping Potter virgins), and in moments when the characters—particularly Parker’s beautifully textured, frustrated, humane Harry—must confront demons not terribly unlike those in our own world, before fully realizing the wonder of love. My daughter may have been, again, enchanted by the funnier and more fantastic elements, but I left the theater both haunted and grateful—and not just for the production.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened April 22, 2018, at the Lyric Theatre. Tickets and information: harrypottertheplay.com