Michael Billington is mesmerised by the invention and spectacle of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Michael Billington is transfixed by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
YOU may have noticed that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has recently opened at London’s Palace Theatre in W1. It has also been greeted with universal hosannas. If I have the teeniest reservation about a miraculous piece of stagecraft, it is that the two plays (and you do have to see both), running at more than 2½ hours each, can only be fully understood by those already familiar with J. K. Rowling’s seven ‘Harry Potter’ novels: if you’re not already a fan, take a fully paid-up Potterhead with you.
The plays are written by Jack Thorne and based on an original new story by himself, Miss Rowling and the show’s director, John Tiffany, and, although audiences are given badges asking them to ‘Keep The Secrets’, I can reveal a few facts. The day starts with the 37-year-old Harry and his wife, Ginny, along with the grown-up Ron and Hermione, seeing their respective children off to school on the Hogwarts Express.
Young Albus Potter, a lonely, unpopular boy living under the shadow of his famous dad, is befriended by Scorpius Malfoy, who happens to be the son of his father’s old enemy, Draco. The focus, in fact, is very much on the new generation and their attempt to deal with the forces of darkness symbolised by Lord Voldemort and his sinister allies. I may have said too much already.
What really gripped me was the brilliance of Mr Tiffany’s production, of Christine Jones’s design and of Jamie Harrison’s illusions. The framework is surprisingly simple: a set of Victorian Gothic arches more reminiscent of St Pancras than King’s Cross from which the Hogwarts train departs. Ingenious use is made of packing cases and portable stairways to evoke everything from moving trains to fractured friendships.
However, it is the magic that is really striking. Lightning physical transformations constantly occur, duels are conducted with soaring jets of flame and, best of all, the Dementors, who suck the souls out of human beings, hover over our heads like giant, filmy wraiths.
I’m no expert on the Potter films, but, in the couple I saw, I felt the special effects won out over the characters. There’s no danger of that here as Mr Thorne gives us not only a mythical quest and a contest between good and evil, but a story of a father and son struggling to understand each other. Jamie Parker as the guilt-ridden Harry and Sam Clem-
mett as Albus are at loggerheads for much of the time and movingly capture the tension of parent-child relationships.
Noma Dumezweni as the grown-up Hermione and Paul Thornley as the common-sensical Ron have an easier time of it with their daughter, Rose, of whom we don’t see enough. However, the acting honours are stolen by Anthony Boyle as the boy Scorpius, who is chirpy, loyal, easily hurt and who, with his blond mop of hair, suggests a slimmed-down, juvenile Boris Johnson.
If the acting is good, the staging itself is a total triumph, with Neil Austin’s lighting deserving a special mention for its ability to give the design a deliquescent quality as the characters engage in time travel. Astonishing.
After the wizardry of Harry Potter, any conventional play is sure to seem a bit earthbound. You could say that is literally the case with Fracked! by Alistair Beaton at the Minerva, Chichester, as the play revolves around the process of extracting oil or gas from shale. This has already triggered passionate environmental protests in Fernhurst and Balcombe not far from Chichester and Mr Beaton’s play shows a retired medieval historian, sympathetically played by Anne Reid, driven to forsake angry letter writing for direct action.
Although that is fascinating, the play’s real dynamism comes from the character of a devilish PR consultant who acts as adviser to a company about to start drilling. Ever since Michael Frayn invented a fictional character called Rollo Suavely, PRS have been ripe for satire, but Mr Beaton suggests they now determine policy as well as manipulate the media. Oliver Chris plays Mr Beaton’s example with just the right sinister smoothness and, even if the play never acknowledges the case for fracking, Richard Wilson’s production has plenty of snap and bite.
I began this column by praising the theatrical banquet created by John Tiffany at the Palace Theatre, but I was much less nourished by Richard Greenberg’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. I know the novella was turned into a hit movie starring Audrey Hepburn in 1961, but I wish dramatists would leave the story alone. This is the second version we’ve seen at the Haymarket in the space of seven years and, like Samuel Adamson’s earlier version, it doesn’t really work.
That is partly because the story isn’t essentially dramatic and partly because the heroine, Holly Golightly, is a capricious fantasist easier to imagine than to embody. Pixie Lott works hard as Holly and delivers a trio of songs, including Moon River, with the right plangency, but she never persuaded me she was a hick from the sticks posing as a New York sophisticate.
Matt Barber is more convincing as the Capote-like narrator and director Nikolai Foster does all he can, but this star vehicle never fully motors into life. ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ is booking until May 27, 2017 (0844 755 0016); ‘Fracked!’ closes on August 6 (01243 781312); ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ runs until September 17 (020–7930 8800)
Up to no good: Noma Dumezweni, Jamie Parker and Paul Thornley
The Granger-weasleys and the Potters deliver their children—including Albus (foreground)—to Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross
James Bolam and Anne Reid get angry in Fracked!