Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Princess Theatre, Melbourne)

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It’s a god-like thing to create a world. But a world where others follow you, make manifest the buildings you’ve described, the characters you’ve created; play the sport you’ve invented (yep, skydiving quidditch is a thing now, apparently), well, wow J.K.Rowling. I mean, WOW!

I was working in a bookshop in St Kilda when Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone first hit the shelves; it was incredible to witness the growing phenomena (Crescente miraculum!) that was/is Potter. I got to read aloud, at the stroke of midnight, the first chapter of the latest instalment  to wide-eyed pyjama-clad kids out way beyond their bedtime. Some of those kids are probably here. If they were Harry’s age when Philosopher came out, they’ll be in their thirties now.

So I reveal my bias: I’m a fan; an early convert. We’re talking hardbacks queued for, Ultimate Blu-ray Collectors’ editions saved for, and a six-foot cardboard Snape I prayed for (thanks 3rd year students) – every home should have one.

And I’m prepared for this.

N.E.W.T.s ready.

Primed to love whatever happens, but dreading the possibility that I might…not.

I’ve read the script so I KNOW things.

Things I CANNOT WRITE OF HERE because we are enjoined to ‘keep the secrets’ and I hold to my word as if I had made an Unbreakable Vow [sic].

It’s completely, utterly, bewitchingly magical. Magic that – in Peter Brook parlance – is rough, immediate, holy…. and joyful.

The experience begins before you walk through the doors: the banners in the streets, the acolytes of all denominations – Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, Slytherin, even a few too-cool-for-school Ravenclaws – wandering about, the sculptural image of a child in a nest suspended above the awning of the refurbished Princess Theatre on Spring Street, the inside of the building itself – infused with ‘magical’ details – the panelling! the lamps!.

The feeling of excitement, of expectation in the theatre is palpable.

More like the feeling before a Grand Final than a play.

More like the feeling I imagine theatre must once have conjured, than the ennui of entitlement it seems to elicit so often now.

It begins.

And it’s completely, utterly, bewitchingly magical. Magic that – in Peter Brook parlance – is rough, immediate, holy…. and joyful.

Told in two parts, with a decent break in the middle (I saw both plays on the same day), and filtered through the growing friendship of Albus Severus Potter (second son to Harry and Ginny Potter) and Malfoy scion (and adorable dag) Scorpius; Cursed Child picks up from, and includes, the last scene in the books (and films) at Kings Cross Station, Platform 9¾.

And moves on.

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L-R: Gyton Grantley as Ron Weasley, Paula Arundell as Hermione Granger, Gareth Reeves as Harry Potter and Lucy Goleby as Ginny Potter. Photo: Matt Murphy

The relationship between the boys, in the face of aggressive anti-Slytherin (where the boys are both ‘sorted’) bullying, is heartwarming, intense, authentic and clumsy-funny. A sort of what-might-have-been, with respect to their fathers; with a hint of maybe-they’ll-be-more-than-friends-one-day (or maybe not), for the boys themselves. Friendship is the heart of the story.

In Jack Thorne’s pacy, often witty script – from an original story he developed with Rowling and director John Tiffany – there’s the eternal vagary of prophecy, the ordinary heroism of sacrifice, the potential rage of the outsider, the friendship of the boys.

But there’s also a story about fathers and sons – or, more accurately, being a father and being a son – two roles Harry in particular has little experience of. It’s the eighth tale in a saga (and not, as the woman sitting next me feared, all seven books compressed into one play) and as much Harry’s story as Albus’.

Christine Jones’ set is both spectacular and clever: epic, elegant, evocative, it’s made to be used! A pair of moving staircases (yaaay!) feature, but so do clocks, lamps and suitcases.

It’s the completely collaborative nature of the creation that sets this production  apart.

The effects (illusion and magic, Jamie Harrison), the lighting (Neil Austin), the sound (Gareth Fry, with music by Imogen Heap), the costumes (Katrina Lindsay), the movement (Steven Hoggett), are all equally brilliant, and all, at times, breathtaking. But the wonder one feels often hinges on simple rather than ‘flashy’ elements; a combination of restrained-but-beautiful high tech, puppetry techniques and quite inventive ‘actor-y’ stuff (excuse the technical jargon) – as in the way suitcases are moved, or cloaks are spun – that’s beautifully, precisely executed and gives the show a gorgeous fluidity.

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The Australian company of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo: Matt Murphy

It’s a lavish production, but not wasteful. Every element complements and enhances, every other. Jones’ set design, for example, would always be a thing of beauty, but it’s truly revealed by Hoggett’s movement direction, by Austin’s lighting. In this way, it’s the completely collaborative nature of the creation – no surprise I guess, given how many of the creatives have worked together previously – that sets it apart.

And the theatricality – quite an old-fashioned theatricality at times, with trap-doors and wires (neither ever obviously visible) – seems just perfect for the Dickensian-tech world of Rowling’s imaginings.

This is not a piece to approach as you would a more traditional play, expecting a steady build to a dramatic climax (you hope); it’s more episodic, with bursts of terror, humour, wonder.

The style, the fabulous conjunctions of ideas and images, the actuality of the thing, as directed by John Tiffany, is pure theatre.

You feel the heritage of the books (if it reminds me of anything, it’s of the long ago Nicholas Nickleby, of  similarly epic, similarly intimate proportions) in the extended dialogue and lengthy exposition; and of the films, in the fact that the whole piece is comprised of short sharp scenes – some with no text at all – that seem to cross-fade or jump-cut between one another. But the style, the fabulous conjunctions of ideas and images, the actuality of the thing, as directed by John Tiffany, is pure theatre.

As with the UK original, the cast are a combination of unknowns and jobbing-actors. ‘Character’ actors rather than ‘leading’ men and women. No TV ‘personalities’ to overbalance the ensemble. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons the piece feels so fresh, so particularly ‘ours’, so un-franchisey.

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L-R: William McKenna as Scorpius Malfoy and Sean Rees-Wemyss as Albus Potter. Photo: Matt Murphy

Fresh out of high school, William McKenna is perfection as Scorpius – just one of several possible claimants really, to the title of ‘cursed child’ – while Sean Rees-Wemyss as Albus Potter, arguably, the more difficult role, gives a rounded performance that’s pitched about right.

Manali Datar is quite the self-righteous Miss, as Rose Weasley-Grainger and that irritated me (the character, not the actor). How could the child of Hermione be other than tolerant and generous? Then I factor in Hermione’s know-it-all past, and Ron’s (Gyton Grantley is goofy and gorgeous) teenage inconsistency, and think about what jerks kids in packs can be, and I remember that she’s young (and fictional…), and I’m ok. And, vocally, she’s an Emma Watson clone, which is fun.

Actors appear as multiple characters with Gillian Cosgriff, George Henare, Soren Jensen, Madeleine Jones, Hannah Waterman, David Ross-Paterson and Debra Lawrence deserving of mention – though to name the characters they play would be to reveal too much.

Lucy Goleby as Ginny Potter is a strong presence in a very ‘supporting’ role. While Gareth Reeves as The-boy-who-lived himself, gives a warm, slightly troubled, well-judged performance.

In the casting of Paula Arundell as Hermione, the producers continue their ‘controversial’ (seriously?!) decision to play a (strong) non-caucasian actor in the role. Rowling’s original tweet in response to the furore ran: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.”.

Arundell is a compelling presence though both she and Draco (Tom Wren, also very fine) are a bit – how can I put it? – over-determined. These actors are well-cast, but when characters are so familiar (not to say ‘iconic’) and there’s five and a half hours or so of playing time, the need to ‘prove’ one’s credentials every time you speak, need not be so emphatic! It’s the difference between allowing the character to reveal themselves and slapping the audience in the face with them.

A note to those who may be muggles-all-unknowing because, if you’re not a scar-head devotee, you’ll miss stuff:

*Read Journey to the eighth story and Also Good To Know in the program. It’s only a few pages.

* If you don’t know your Goblet of Fire (my second least favourite of the series, after Chamber of Secrets, though at least the latter had, y‘know, the chamber of secrets…), you might flounder. Read that bit in Journey to the eighth story, twice!

Of course, if you’re not one of the initiated, you’ve never gotten into bad habits: Rowling gets to correct our years of mispronounced ‘Voldemort’s. The ’t’ is silent.

The audience owned every bit of this show. Huge gasps as plot twists Revelio-ed themselves; Oohs and aaahs as creatures and beings one hoped never to see in real life (I can say no more), came way too close for comfort.

I came away content, happy, wondering if it might be possible to lay-by tickets for later in the year. Or next year. And the year after.

It feels as though this magic is here to stay.

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