Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member
#Keepthesecrets. That’s the admonition (and the button) that theatregoers are given when they exit the almost unbelievably magical Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I understand them completely: what happens on that stage is the kind of stage magic that your eyes will tell you is happening but your mind will rebel and demand to know how it is done. And it’s all wrapped up in an absorbing book by Jack Thorne based on his collaborative story with JK Rowling and director John Tiffany and features compelling acting and brilliant tech. This multiple Tony Award-winning play is a show that should run for years. If it ran as long as Wicked or even Phantom, though, it couldn’t come close to exhausting the available fan base. Not that you need to be a fan of the books to enjoy this remarkable production. It probably does help, and there are plenty of references to events and characters we have met before, but this tale stands on its own.
When you are going to transfer the Harry Potter world onto the stage, you have to get it right. There are too many magical elements to ignore, and we’ve seen so much of that world already in the films that our threshold for amazement is high. Illusions and Magic Designer Jamie Harrison comes through in spades. Without giving anything away (#keepthesecrets) I think I can say that there is little short of apparation and riding thestrals that they don’t do onstage right before our disbelieving eyes. A lot of this is aided by Lighting Designer Neil Austin and Sound Designer Gareth Fry, whose work is integral in several effects. (Video Designers Finn Ross and Ash Woodward also come into play.) But a lot of the credit also should go to Tiffany and Set Designer Christine Jones, without whom many of the practical effects would not be possible.
It’s odd in a review to glow about the tech before anything else, but it’s that kind of show. Nonetheless, it would never work without excellent actors, and the characterizations are indeed, as Ron Weasley might say, brilliant. We meet our heroes Harry (Jamie Parker), Ginny (Poppy Miller), Ron (Paul Thornley), and Hermione (Noma Dumezweni), as well as antagonist Draco Malfoy (Alex Price) at pretty much the same moment when we last saw them in the books: nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, as they are about to send their children off to school. Two of those children, Albus Potter (Sam Clemmett) and Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle) become critical parts of the unfolding tale, as does a new character named Delphi Diggory (Jessie Fisher), who has personal reasons to help the boys on a dangerous quest.
All of the acting is top-notch. Clemmett and Parker very realistically portray a teen and his father who don’t get along—yes, even the great HP cannot find a spell to make his kids all like him. Miller is a perfect Ginny, a grown-up version of the character Bonnie Francesca Wright played in the films. (Speaking of which, it certainly is easy to see a lot of young Rupert Grint in Thornley.) Dumezweni is her own powerful creation as Hermione, the high-achieving and at times officious muggle-born wife of Ron. And Price is a very strong Draco, reminding me (quite intentionally, I’m certain) of Jason Isaacs’ Lucius Malfoy in the films. But none of the acting here is a copy of the famous film quintet; rather, these actors seem to have taken the teen versions of their characters as jumping off points to create the adults who would have shared that kind of overwhelming past and grown up to be complex, conflicted people. Fisher, as the new kid on the block, is remarkable: full of energy and the kind of enthusiasm that would easily entrance teen boys. But easily the most complicated role falls to Boyle, whose Scorpius Malfoy, having grown up under a shadow, just wants to be someone’s friend and, to that end, finds himself in an adventure that makes him grow up quickly.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is far more than the sum of its outstanding parts. It sets new standards for what can be accomplished in live theatre in much the same way that Hamilton transformed musicals. The phrase “stage magic” will never have quite the same meaning again. And the hordes of costumed fans attending with me on Halloween--as well as those people who might have been new to the Potterverse--left very satisfied, knowing they’d witnessed something unique in the history of theatre.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is now playing at the Lyric Theatre in New York City in an open run. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.