Per­form­ing Arts

Michael Billing­ton is mes­merised by the in­ven­tion and spec­ta­cle of Harry Pot­ter and the Cursed Child

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Edited by Jane Watkins

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!

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