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Monday 8 August 2016

"The Play's the Thing: Lyndon Reviews Harry Potter and the Cursed Child"

Let’s start where we left off. It’s nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts and Harry Potter is standing on the platform at King’s Cross Station, preparing to send his children to Hogwarts and consoling his terrified son that being sorted into Slytherin might not be the worst thing that could ever happen to him. And if Harry Potter and the Cursed Child can be praised for anything it’s this: that it turns the occasionally off-putting sentimentality of Rowling’s final chapter to wonderful purpose as the beginning of a new adventure in the Wizarding World. Albus Severus Potter now becomes more than just a symbol of the idealistic future of the Potter family: he is a hero in his own right, perhaps surpassing his father in our empathetic connection to him, as we recognise what it must be to live in the great Harry Potter’s shadow (something that every other children’s book has been doing for nearly a decade now). The gorgeous synchronicity of this new playscript is every bit of harrowing as the original Potter series but an inversion of it, as Harry finds himself struggling with what he feels is an ungrateful and disobedient son, and Albus struggles to make his father see that you don’t need to be locked in a cupboard under the stairs to feel like a stranger in your own family. “Just cast a spell, Dad, and change me into what you want me to be, okay?” he begs his stunned father. We were promised at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that “All was well,” but something is rotten in the Potter House.
The play spends a bit of time ticking the “Where are they now?” boxes, but contrary to the final chapter of Deathly Hallows in this version we get a much stronger sense for what has changed and what has remained the same. Highlights are discovering Hermione in the job that - in hindsight - she was born for, and Ginny’s surprisingly tender and perceptive relationship with Harry. While readers were begging for “Romione” from the beginning, finally we start to see just why Harry and Ginny are a perfect match too.
Amongst the split narrative between parents and children is a surprising number of repetitions from the original series. There’s sneaking around in libraries, wizard duels, riddles and polyjuice potions, as well as a dramatic and convoluted arrival to kick off the first day of term. For something that occurs so far into the future of the story, it’s amazing how many old favourite characters make an appearance, causing me to reassess my theory that nine-year’s time from now would likely bring us a reunion of the original films’ lead cast. There’s lots that feels familiar here, but the story is also impressively daring, featuring a few moments that actually serve to tie knots left undone from the original franchise.
But what is it like to read a Harry Potter play? Well, it’s not the same as the original series, but it’s also less complicated than you might think. Most readers will find this a much quicker read thanPhilosopher’s Stone, and will fall back into the familiar world with great ease, whatever the form. The scope of the play’s ambition in action is astonishing too; I was hoping the book would scratch the itch of desperately wanting to see it in performance, but it only made it worse as I breathlessly muttered, “How are they going to do that?!” If some of the effect Rowling’s work had on children’s literacy passes to the world of kids going to the theatre (and it appears that it will), we have something very special on our hands. The collaborative story Rowling has made with playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany is in extraordinarily capable hands with Jack Thorne as the play’s writer, which feels increasingly true to Rowling’s world and voice as the story plays out, with a few moments that are worthy of standing with some of the best of the series.
At the heart of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the idea that our parents’ legacies follow over everything we do, casting our entire lives into dark shadows. And it’s not just Albus Severus Potter - by the end of the story there are several possibilities for who the title might refer to. In fact, it might be Jack Thorne himself, who no doubt spent more than a little time wondering how people would take his experiment of playing in Rowling’s sandbox. He needn’t have worried. For a while, The Cursed Child feels like an imposter left on the doorstep of the series we know and love - not really J. K. Rowling, not really a book, not really a Harry Potter story. But as it leaves Platform 9 and ¾ it moves slowly at first, gaining traction and intensity with every scene and page. It takes a while, but soon Hogwarts is there in front of us, after all this time, and we realise that we are coming home. Back to a world that - whatever form it takes - still wonders and delights and surprises.
And then?
Then, it’s nothing less than magic.

Lyndon Riggall is a writer and blogger. You can find him at http://lyndonriggall.com

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