Harry Potter And The Cursed Child spoiler-free review

Our US chums caught a preview performance of the ambitious new Harry Potter stage play, which turns out to be really rather special...

Note: This spoiler-free review for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is based on a preview performance of the play.

If you’ve spent any time on Tumblr or Twitter in the time since Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had its first preview performances, then you may know that fandom response to the plot details has been met with some concern. This is an understandable reaction. Out of context, the rough plot of the Harry Potter sequel set 19 years following the events of the books (save for the epilogue) sounds as complicated as trying to make a Draught of Peace with Professor Snape looking over your shoulder.

Some of this reaction is no doubt part of a larger anxiety surrounding a general change for the Harry Potter canon, which, save for the occasional Pottermore update, has been left alone since the seventh book was published. The Cursed Child represents the first new addition to canon Harry Potter in a long time — and it’s not the only one. In November, we will get another story officially set in the Harry Potter world in the form of Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. And Rowling has been building her wizarding world out through Pottermore in anticipation.

The anxiety is no doubt heightened by the fact that, for the first time, JK Rowling is less involved than ever. Though both projects are partially in her hands (the author helped create the story for The Cursed Child and wrote the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts), these canonical additions are highly collaborative and under the control of other creators for the first time in Harry Potter history. 

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This is all a long, roundabout way of my saying: yes, the pressure’s on and concerns about The Cursed Child play are high. For many young adults, Harry Potter wasn’t just a story they liked as a kid. It was one they grew up with that helped them understand the world and themselves. I was in fifth grade when I read the first book, and aged at a similar pace to Harry. When the final book was released in 2007, for example, Harry was 17 and I was 19. These books are inextricably entwined with my childhood and personhood — and I am far from the only millennial running around who feels this way.

So what did I, one subjective, yet hopefully discerning fan-critic think of the newest addition to the beloved story-verse? Frankly, it was everything I hadn’t even dared hoped it would be and more. Sure, there were plot elements that moved quicker than I would have liked, but that is the nature of the medium/genre and the story never forgot the characters behind the twist-happy narrative.

The tricky balance between embracing canon and changing it

The Cursed Child not only gives us a peek back into the lives of the characters we know and love from the original canon, but allows itself to expand and shift in new, interesting, and daring ways. I knew The Cursed Child would be magical; I just didn’t expect it to be this ambitious. As director John Tiffany mentions in this New York Times interview, he was surprised by how much JK Rowling allowed them to play with the canon:

There are parts of the story, which when we first conceived them, I didn’t think she would let us do, but she never hesitated. It is one thing to let us continue the story, another to let us unravel the canon.

The Cursed Child isn’t just extending canon, it is challenging and experimenting with all that has come before. This willingness to take chances when it comes to canon could have been The Cursed Child‘s downfall, but because it is all so lovingly and meticulously done by Thorne, Rowling, and Tiffany, it is, instead, its strength. In this age of money-grabbing remakes, reboots, and reimagining, my expectations have become depressingly low when it comes to new additions to my favorite canon universes. Refreshingly, The Cursed Child is the rare exception to the generally lacklustre canon extensions. It isn’t just fine; it is something special.

The rough, spoiler-light plot

The rough, spoiler-light plot goes as follows: It has been 19 years since the main events of the Deathly Hallows. When we catch up with Harry, he and Ginny are still married with three children. We get a replay of the Deathly Hallows’ epilogue in the play’s opening minutes, seeing Harry send his middle child, Albus, off to Hogwarts as Draco Malfoy does the same with son Scorpius. The relationship that forms between Albus and Scorpius acts as the delightful, thematically-rich backbone of this play, as does the boys’ relationships with their respective fathers.

Cleverly, writer Jack Thorne hasn’t made us choose here between Harry’s generation and Albus’, instead making both worlds equally important. This is smart, though somewhat awkward given that the prime demographic of kids who grew up reading Harry Potter are somewhere in-between middle-aged parent and school-age child. The Cursed Child succeeds, however, by sticking so closely to the themes of the original stories: the struggle to accept the inevitability and finality of death, the power (and, sometimes, not) we have to shape our own narratives, the challenges of growing up (which, as we see from Harry, continues to happen at all ages), and (of course) the enduring power of love.

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If you can, see it on stage

I hate to say it, given that I know that it is not realistic for many people to travel to London to see The Cursed Child, but the staging and performance (not to mention Imogen Heap’s immersive soundtrack) really makes this play come to life. The script, itself, is beautiful and deft and filled with great quotes (both callbacks to the books and totally new), but the on-stage execution is what breathes life into those words.

There are some special effects thrown in amongst the deftly-drawn angst, of course, and seeing this on the London stage was nothing short of (yes, I’m going there) magical. I’m not sure how well this play will translate for those reading it in script form at home. I am desperate to read it myself, even after having seen the performance, but it will be a distinctly different experience the one in the Palace Theatre that includes but-how-did-they-do-that special effects, an engaging cast, and the energy that comes with any live performance.

Let me take a second to talk about that last one because, as we all know, there is something special about watching a play or film as part of an engaged audience. There were, at various points during the performances I saw, audible gasps, rippling laughter, a delightful sense of dread, and a tangible sense of heartbreak from the audience. It’s that feeling you had of discussing the latest Harry Potter book with your friend, but, this time, it is while you are watching the story unfold.

If you already have tickets to see The Cursed Child, I would strongly suggest waiting to read the script, if you are the kind of audience member who likes to be surprised at all. As Rowling’s #KeeptheSecrets campaign suggests, there are definitely twists worth keeping mum about.

The perfect balance of nostalgia and new elements

Going into the performance, I wasn’t expecting for The Cursed Child to incorporate so many of the characters from the original series, but it did, through a myriad of clever narrative devices that I will not reveal here. “Fan service,” as it is so problematically and confusingly called (isn’t all story fan service, to a degree?), has never looked so effortless.

The Cursed Child succeeds with its twist-heavy plot and juggling of old and new characters because it stays focused on one, familiar theme. As John Tiffany, The Cursed Child‘s director, puts it in this New York Times interview:

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When we met to talk about the play, [Rowling] asked, ‘What do you think the Harry Potter stories are about?’ I said, ‘Learning to deal with death and grief.’ There was something in her eye — I thought, we didn’t say it’s about transformation or magic or flying on brooms, and we’re on the right track.

The Cursed Child manages to infuse this theme into the depiction of both generations, which is particiularly impressive given that Harry’s son, Albus, has lived a much more charmed life than his father did as a child. (A pretty low bar, admittedly.) Amidst all of the special effects and plot twists, is the supremely personal and relatable exploration of this theme that keeps the narrative grounded and, as any good theme should, drives the plot.

How did the returning characters measure up? 

I could go on and on comparing the stage versions of characters to their book versions, but I will save that for my spoiler-filled review (stay tuned!). Generally, I will say that, though at first, it was hard to reconcile the stage actors with the film actors, it quickly became a non-problem. Thorne, Tiffany, and Rowling did an amazing job making these returning characters feel like older versions of their past selves, which is much more ambitious and decidedly more difficult than simply recreating these characters as they were as 17 and 18-year-olds.

Harry, in particular, is perfect: stubborn, reactionary, and endlessly brave and loving. I wasn’t expecting The Cursed Child to depict such a well-rounded, flawed version of Harry, but it did. This is the boy wizard we know from the books: he has all of the right intentions, but he doesn’t always do the right thing. Albus has definitely inherited this trait from his father — something that other, familiar characters comment on more than once in delightfully self-aware ways.

Scorpius Malfoy steals the show

For me, the character of Scorpius Malfoy is the highlight of this story. At times, his nerdiness skirts uncomfortable close to parody, but Anthony Boyle (and the script) does such a good job breathing a vulnerability into this character that it totally works. In this new generation, Scorpius is the Hermione of the group: the clever nerd who is unfairly judged for his parents’ status (in her case, as Muggles, in his case, as Malfoys), but who wants so desperately to have friends. As I mentioned before, the dynamic between Albus and Scorpius gets a lot of play and Scorpius himself has my favorite speech from the entire two-part play when he calls Albus out for his self-involved angsting. I’ll let you discover his awesomeness for yourself, but Scorpius is, without a doubt, the greatest new(ish) addition to Harry Potter canon.

An emphasis on male relationships

I did come out of the two-night performance thinking about how male-centric The Cursed Child is, which is neither good, nor bad, just a fact of the experience. Though it is undoubtedly an ensemble play — and one that gives Hermione, Ginny, Professor McGonagall, and new character Delphi Diggory plenty to do — ultimately, the relationships the play is most interested in putting under the microscope are the ones between men: between fathers and sons, and between Albus and Scorpius.

The world is also very heteronormative with, as far as I saw, no explicit LGBTQ characters despite using a variety of romantic tropes to explore the friendship between Albus and Scorpius. Given Rowling’s post-Hallows announcement that Dumbledore was, in fact, gay, it would have been nice to see the LGBTQ wizard community more explicitly depicting in canon through The Cursed Child.

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In conclusion…

In the years since the Harry Potter books were first published, the film universe has bled with book canon in inextricable ways. As much as I love the movies (especially Prisoner of Azkaban and Deathly Hallows: Part 1), they are adaptations of already-existing stories that, because of the nature of the medium, are unable to capture much of the intimacy of the books. 

The Cursed Child doesn’t have that same problem. Not only is it an original story rather than an adaptation, but it is a play. Theatre as a medium has an immediacy and raw intimacy that film can’t quite imitate. (Cinema has different strengths.) For me, the experience of watching The Cursed Child in the Palace Theatre was much closer to the experience of first reading the Harry Potter books as a kid and teenager, curled up in my room for hours on end until I finished. I haven’t felt that wonder of discovering new secrets about these characters and this world in a very long time, and its rediscovery was a homecoming of sorts.

Ultimately, The Cursed Child is an incredibly rewarding experience for Harry Potter fans — or at least it was for this Harry Potter fan (we do, after all, look for different things in our stories). In addition to the return to the world, the return of many familiar faces, and the continued exploration of the rich themes of the original series, The Cursed Child gives us the next chapter in the story of Harry Potter’s life that simultaneously addresses his past trauma and experiences in compelling ways, while allowing him to learn from those experiences that, almost 10 years after the release of the final book, so many young adults still use as a moral and cultural framework for navigating and understanding this complicated, chaotic world.

In a year that has brought so much hate, instability, and political unrest to the social foreground, I think the world is in need of another Harry Potter instalment right about now. As Rowling once said: “The stories we love best do live in us forever. So, whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.” It’s good to be home.