Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Review
Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.
Maybe it was the way the play was described, maybe it was my own reluctance to get excited about an unknown story booked a year in advance, or maybe it was some mistaken expectations on my part about what “a play” feels like, but my greatest fear was that The Cursed Child would be A Very Serious Play. Not serious in a “Voldemort returns” way, but in a “Harry has a midlife crisis, divorces Ginny and struggles with his taxes” kind of way.
I genuinely worried about this possibility for months. It seems utterly ridiculously in hindsight, and was proved wrong the minute I walked through the theatre’s front doors, but I had many conversations about the possibility of The Cursed Child turning out to be The Casual Vacancy, Harry Potter Edition. That was what JKR was like when writing adult characters, right?
Looking back, I think I was worried about a far more nebulous, and far more likely, possibility. I was concerned that the play wouldn’t feel like Harry Potter. That I would get excited and then be disappointed. That the play would lack the magic and wonder of the books. That it wouldn’t feel right.
All those fears were unfounded. Cursed Child is very much a Harry Potter story. It invokes everything that Harry Potter always was, mixing dark plotlines with great characters and buckets of humor, capturing both the literal and figurative magic of the books on stage, while presenting the kind of poignant familiar character moments and great new personalities that readers would hope for.
In fact, far from being too serious, Cursed Child has a very fanficcy vibe. That isn’t a criticism — I devoured Harry Potter fanfiction as the books were coming out, to the point that it’s as integral to my feelings about the series as the actual books — but it’s definitely a statement of tone. Cursed Child ties closely into Goblet of Fire, as Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy take it upon themselves to save Cedric Diggory, the “spare” who didn’t need to die. That means revisiting old scenes and meeting old characters, and then obviously, inevitably, ending up on alternate timelines that, like fanfics, get to explore “what ifs” of that world. It also makes for an incredibly gripping and entertaining play experience. But then, I’ve always been a sucker for “what if” scenarios.
And, like many fanfics, it is dark. Sorry kids — you didn’t need to sleep tonight anyway, right? I’m not sure what was darker and more frightening: seeing Ron and Hermione receiving the dementor’s kiss in front of us on stage? The scene where young Harry lies in bed while Voldemort’s white hands reach out of the darkness? Or having Voldemort glide past you on the way to murder Harry’s mum and dad?
But in true Harry Potter fashion, it brought a lot of levity too. I know some of this has been lost in translation, since I’ve already seen people taking really funny jokes from the script book and thinking the lines are meant seriously, but as a play, it’s absolutely hilarious, mixing humor, adventure and darkness in perfect, Harry Potter-esque doses.
Of course, the presence of inevitable new fan favorite, Scorpius Malfoy, helped with that a lot.
The trio were perfectly played by the adult cast, at once familiar and new after twenty more years. Ron has certainly mellowed out from his teenage self, allowing us to mostly see the better and funnier parts of his character, but that makes sense, I think, if he’s no longer crippled by jealousy and has found a steady place in the world. Hermione is absolutely wonderful, as the Minister of Magic and a general badass. And Harry got a very nuanced consideration, with the flashbacks to his time at the Dursleys providing a lot of pathos, while his present day story focussed on some of his less admirable characteristics. He was frustrating, frequently even unlikeable, but so clearly the somewhat rash, self-righteous but ultimately very caring and protective Harry we know from the books.
I was a little disappointed that there was no New Trio, like a lot of people expected. Scorpius is fantastic, but I would have loved Rose to have a bigger role. She was great in the few glimpses we got, but without her, this was a very male-heavy play, beyond Hermione and the not-so-well-executed Delphie Diggory.
So let’s talk about Delphie Diggory, a character who felt like something of a Tonks replacement at first, until she as eventually revealed to be Voldemort’s child. She is, I think, the biggest problem people had with the story when they read spoilers, and I thought she was the weakest element of the play. Although the moment when she turns against Albus and Scorpius is incredibly well done, she then feels like too much of a caricaturish villain once she’s revealed. Maybe the writing for her wasn’t up to scratch, or the acting wasn’t up to the task, but she felt fairly two dimensional, despite the play’s attempts to make her more complicated and tie her story into its themes of loneliness and acceptance.
In general, the second part of the play was less fun than the first, especially after Delphie was revealed. Even at five hours long, the play tried to juggle more plot elements than it had time for, making certain elements feel rushed — I thought they’d spend more time in the alternate timeline in particular. But while the second half was weaker on some plot elements, its character moments were truly excellent. I’m writing this from memory, before getting hold of the script, so forgive my slight wooliness here, but I was struck in particular by the conversation between Draco and Harry, exploring how Draco’s isolation made him the person he was in the books. Or the scene with Dumbledore’s portrait, where Harry shouts at him for manipulating the people who loved him, and for leaving a young Harry all alone with the Dursleys. Or even the play bringing up how Ginny was possessed by Voldemort, something I always thought needed to be explored more in the books. I didn’t agree with all the character points — come on, Snape is still a jerk, no matter how he helped the Order — but it was great for characters in general.
But one of the key questions in my mind, both during and after watching the play, was whether, as JK Rowling claimed, it needed to be a play. And ultimately, I found that I agreed with her. The beauty of a play is that it brings places like Hogwarts to life, but only in outline. We can see these characters before us, but we still need our imagination to fill in the rest, making it the perfect stepping stone out of the written word, without threatening the worlds we’ve built in our imaginations.
But more than that, it means that we as an audience are physically, literally there as the events happen before us and around us. Although the hilarious Polyjuice scene was probably my favorite overall, nothing stands out in my mind as strongly as the very end of Part One — first, when the audience gasped in horror when Umbridge was revealed, and then as the Dementors filled the room, sweeping around and above the audience, huge and dark and terrifying.
But the moment that I think JK Rowling was talking about comes toward the end of Part 2, when all the characters find themselves in Godric’s Hollow on October 31st 1981, and, after two entire play’s worth of warning against changing the past, Harry (and the audience) can do nothing but watch as Voldemort kills his parents. This is the key moment in the Harry Potter story, far more than “yer a wizard, Harry.” It’s a moment that looms over all the rest of the series, its implications weaving through everything. And after all the fun and the darkness of the play so far, Cursed Child brings us back to that moment, and physically places us in the middle of the scene.
Literally in the middle. The characters look out from the stage as Voldemort walks down the center aisle, as the shouts we know so well from the books echo behind us and green light flashes. I left the play 15 minutes later with shaking legs, because of how powerful and deeply, deeply upsetting the scene was, to not just watch, but to experience.
And that’s what Cursed Child really is. It’s an experience. The play is going to Hogwarts, going on an adventure, stepping into the world of the books, with all the delight and darkness that that implies. The plotline might not be the most perfectly constructed story arc in the world, but as an experience, it really can’t be beaten.
I’ll probably write more on specific elements of the story once I’ve had chance to read through the script book, because I have a lot more thoughts, and I don’t want to rely on my memory to articulate them. But for now, I’ll just say that even if the “Voldemort’s child” plot was kind of silly, and even if the internet seems to have already decided to pretend the play doesn’t exist, I loved it, despite its flaws. And if that makes me Harry Potter trash — well. That’s not exactly news to me.