Magic On The Streets Of London: ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ Gala Opening Review

After a preview period of nearly two months, London’s new two-part stage extravaganza, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, finally took its opening gala bow today at the Palace Theatre, announcing the start of a run that will soon book through December 2017 and seems certain to extend even further. Since Deadline reported on the first preview nights of Part One and Part Two, there haven’t been any seismic changes. But the final play is tighter and the emotional beats more intense, making this a true treat for die-hard Potter fans that have had only scraps to feast on since J.K. Rowling’s last Wizarding World book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in 2007.

With most of London’s critics attending the final few preview performances earlier in the week, today’s affair was mainly “for friends and family,” according to producer Colin Callender. Rowling walked the red carpet, sat in the stalls and seemed delighted by the results in front of her. Guests such as London mayor Sadiq Kahn, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them star Dan Fogler, Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott and Episodes‘ Stephen Mangan joined the creative crew including director John Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne. Rowling and Thorne joined Tiffany on stage for the curtain call after the cast had taken its bows to thank them and the unseen many behind the scenes. Tonight after the show, guests, cast and the creative team were heading to an afterparty at the Renaissance Hotel at St. Pancras station – a familiar Potter location, just a stone’s throw from King’s Cross Platform 9¾. Tiffany promised a grand affair. “I intend to get a little bit drunk,” he joked to the crowd.

The play, produced by Callender and Sonia Friedman, and written by Jack Thorne from an original story by Thorne, Rowling and director Tiffany, spares no expense in bringing the wizardry of Harry Potter’s world to the London stage. In fact, the stagecraft employed is as breathtaking as it is beautifully simple, with an emphasis on techniques that go back centuries, aligned cleverly and seamlessly with established Potter lore. Christine Jones’s set effortlessly transforms into trains, castles and forests, as Imogen Heap’s score whisks us into a magical world living and breathing on the borders of our own. And Steven Hoggett’s movement direction eases transitions with magical interludes that capture the imagination. Detailing this show’s many varied delights specifically would do them a disservice.

Manuel Harlan

As with the main Harry Potter book series, though, the emphasis is on character. The tagline reads, “The eighth story, nineteen years later,” which is only half right. While the play opens with the adult Harry Potter (Jamie Parker) seeing off his second son Albus (Sam Clemmett) on his journey to Hogwarts—a scene that closed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 19 years after the events of the series—the action moves at a clip through Albus’s first three school years. He’s sorted into Slytherin, to his dismay; befriends Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius, to their fathers’ dismay; and is roundly mocked for being a flickering shadow of The Boy Who Lived. By his fourth year, during which much of Cursed Child is set, Albus is a frustrated teenager determined to prove his doubters wrong, though still unable to relate to his famous father.

Manuel Harlan

For its 5-hour runtime, it works in so many plot strands that it’s a fool’s errand—and far too much of a spoiler—to detail them all. Suffice it to say Albus and Scorpius (a witty and spirited Anthony Boyle) set out to correct an error in the past, only to cause damage to their present that threatens the reemergence of darkness after years of peace. It’s up to Harry—now a frustrated civil servant at the Ministry of Magic—and his friends to help the beleaguered next generation.

Heavy exposition attempts to hold the hands of unfamiliar audience members, and it seems to do a fair job, though one theatergoer near me at an earlier showing, who hadn’t read the books or seen the films, needed a steer somewhere in the middle of Part Two. The time travel-heavy plot goes back to events from the main series and beyond. The fan service comes thick and fast, delighting the hardcore with expansions to the canon that at times provoked gasps from the auditorium.

The play is at its very best when it’s reveling in the idiosyncratic wit of Rowling’s creation, and finding human allegory in Harry’s struggle to be a good father to his aimless son. During an especially touching moment, Harry reminds Albus that he, Harry, grew up an orphan, and hasn’t the experience of parenthood to know how to help. Parker and Clemmett excel in these father-son scenes, and Thorne’s writing of them is sentimental without being syrupy, delivering more than one tearful moment.

Manuel Harlan

Albus and Scorpius, meanwhile, form an instant bond and their friendship keeps them alive more than once, even as the play sends them down dark paths characteristic of Rowling’s Potterverse. As the adult Harry and Draco (Alex Price) team up to help their boys, there’s even a little understanding and salvation for the blonde-haired former bully—a typically Rowling-ish comment on the insecurity that breeds darkness, whether we mean it to or not. These kinds of human struggles and friendships are the true magic of the Harry Potter canon.

Albus and Scorpius share a deeper connection, even, than that between Harry, Hermione and Ron in the books, and it’s hard not to read subtle hints of a romantic interest between the lines. The play is never explicit about it, and awkward flirtations with girls come here and there to suggest that perhaps things might develop differently. But Rowling long ago confirmed the existence of homosexuality in the Wizarding World when she revealed after the publication of Deathly Hallows that Albus’s namesake, Professor Albus Dumbledore, was gay, and it wouldn’t be out of character for her to tackle the first signs of emergent sexuality, in any of its forms, with this kind of subtlety and delicacy. The inclusivity of the Wizarding World is surely one of its most enviable qualities.

This is the first time that a new cast of actors has played Harry, Ron and Hermione since Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson originated the roles in 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The new interpretations take no more than an instant to bed in, and the fundamental essence of these characters, which was on the page when the first Potter book was published in 1997, remains unchanged.

Manuel Harlan

As the new leads refresh and redefine these roles, so the play introduces a different take on Hermione, through actress Noma Dumezweni. There isn’t any substantive controversy behind this choice: it’s hard to imagine Dumezweni wasn’t the very best candidate for the job, delivering, as she does, one of the standout performances from amongst the 35-strong ensemble. Parker’s Harry, and Paul Thornley as Ron, offer similarly distinct interpretations of the now-middle-aged wizards, adding another layer for early fans of the series, who will identify with the complexities of adulthood and parenthood themselves, nearly 20 years on from the first book’s release. If the play does make the move to the big screen—and there’s little reason, in these franchise-friendly times, to imagine that it won’t—producers would do well to tempt this ensemble, as is, along for the ride.

There’s plenty of life left on stage first, though, with a further 250,000 tickets going on sale August 4th, extending the sold-out run through December 10 2017. And Potter fans who can’t make the trip to London can experience the story, at least, through the play’s script, which is published in hardcover form at midnight tonight.

Though producer Colin Callender yesterday told me he felt the play is worth waiting to see. “I’m glad the text of the play will be available to people, but the real experience will be to see it in the theater,” he said. “The work of Steven Hoggett, for example; there are things that he does with the movement that aren’t narrative things—they’re transitional things—but the magic of them is something totally unique to the theater. The power of those moments is not something you can capture in a one-line stage direction.”

Manuel Harlan

On today’s evidence, it’s hard to disagree. There are a handful of different options available to theatergoers planning on the full experience: the play can be seen individually and a la carte; over a couple of nights within the same week; or over the course of a whole day, with a 2PM showing of Part One and a 7:30PM showing of Part Two. Having seen it two ways now, there are unique advantages to each approach. But there’s something to be said for shutting off cellphones and immersing in J.K. Rowling’s warm and rich world over the course of an entire day; surely the closest most of us will ever come to receiving a letter from Hogwarts. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a theatrical experience like no other, and supremely hard to resist. Mischief managed.

A final tip for fans planning to make the trip: around the corner from the Palace Theatre, on Greek Street, is pop-up gallery House of MinaLima, open afternoons and evenings until next February. The brainchild of Minaphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, who met as graphic designers in the art department on the Harry Potter films, the gallery is packed to the gills with reproductions and originals of some of the most instantly recognizable Potter graphic art: Daily Prophet front pages, Ministry proclamations, potion bottle labels and the like. Only a muggle would miss it.

Manuel Harlan