For nearly 20 years, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter has been an earth-shattering literary phenomenon — not just for young adult fiction, not just for the entire fantasy genre, but for me. I love Harry Potter (ask me about my Wizard Wrock band). So when J.K. Rowling announced that Harry’s eighth and last story would be on the stage, in London’s West End, I frantically bought tickets and 10 months later I was jetting across the Atlantic. The plot of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been discussed ad nauseum, so there’s no need to go into that again. But what people haven’t talked about much about is the experience of seeing the play, which was the craziest live theatrical experience I’ve ever seen — and I was once sprayed with fake blood during Evil Dead: The Musical, so I’m not messing around.
This is what I experienced when I went to London’s beautiful Palace Theatre, where I saw the continuing story of The Boy Who Lived, set 19 years after The Deathly Hallows. I won’t go into too many details about the plot if you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but I will be talking about what it’s like to see the play. So just in case:
The Palace Theatre is the centrepiece of a busy West End square, with several London pubs nearby all named after some type of animal or another — The Dog and Duck, the Lamb and Flag, things like that. As you’d expect, the queue wrapped completely around the building and then some. People at the end of the line could shake hands with the people who’d been waiting hours.
The Palace Theatre is one those venues that’s deceptively big. The interior stacks up three stories tall but is surprisingly narrow. I had two tickets for the faaaar stage left balcony and I could see perfectly. I’m not sure you could find a bad seat if you wanted to.
Finally, it began. Now, I won’t sidetrack into a critique of the story itself, like how parts are Rowling at her finest while others feel more like over-sentimental fan fiction. I’m more interested in defending its contentious medium of choice.
As soon as it was announced, I knew the forthcoming derision against its format was almost unavoidable. The script of any play or film is really just a skeleton. It’s not meant to capture emotion and every little detail because, well, that’s what actors and set designers are for. Unlike a proper novel, it’s just part of a whole.
The play’s opening set: Platform 9 3/4, 19 years later.
Although the actors and actresses filling out those roles deserve lots of credit, the play works precisely because the effects and set designs make you FEEL like you’re living in a world of magic. Apart from a few Wes Anderson-esque scenes of father-son strife, the entire play is essentially one giant magic show, filled with fluid movements, dazzling effects and dozens of moments where you almost audibly ask the question “how the hell did they do that?”
One simple scene in particular embodies this perfectly. When Harry’s scar hurts for the first time, set crews roll out what looks like an empty bed and drape a blanket overtop. Somehow, the actors then appear in the bed and the scene begins. Simple, but magically effective.
What’s amazing is that The Cursed Child achieves this with relatively simple ideas. The centrepiece of the stage is just a giant circular platform, think of a flush lazy Susan, which the play uses often for portraying the passage of time and manipulating actors’ movements. But really the best parts are in the tiny details of creatively portraying a soul-sucking Dementor, the floating sorcery of a time turner, or the bone-crunching effects of swilling down a vial of Polyjuice Potion. It all happens. Right in front of you. And it’s as convincing, if not more so, than the films’ digital recreations.
New theatre design when… something… happens.
The Cursed Child even goes beyond the stage in making the play feel as real as possible. As major events happen in the play, the interior design of the Palace Theatre lobby changes. They even change up the merch. When, for example, Scorpius and Albus screw up time so badly that Voldemort returns from the grave, the Palace Theatre starts selling only Voldemort and Slytherin gear. Fitting.
Quick theatre redesign.
The Cursed Child delivers on the very basic elements of entertainment. It’s why practical effects, like in the original Star Wars trilogy, feel infinitely more human than the digital effects of its later prequels. It feels like it’s really there, like all you’d have to do is reach out and touch it.
This is the gift The Cursed Child gives to its most ardent fans. It takes the fantasy of a world of wizards and witches out of your mind, or the digitally enhanced creations of blockbuster films, and lets you experience that world with your own eyes. For a few hours, inside that theatre, it feels like you’ve travelled to the wizarding world itself. And that’s some powerful magic indeed.