Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

The release of a new Harry Potter story is one of those rare events which has children and adults alike waiting in line at the local bookstore on a Sunday morning. And that was certainly the case with me – I was in Melbourne over the weekend for a friend’s buck’s party, but still managed to drag the whole group (most of us miserably hungover) to the nearest Dymocks. Because it’s Harry Potter. And it speaks to the enduring power of the series that even a play script can be welcomed so eagerly by the fans.

Like most readers across the world, I am insanely jealous of anyone who was fortunate enough to see the premiere of the play in London over the weekend. Plays are meant to be performed, not read, so my review is tempered by the knowledge that I’ve only seen the skeleton of a completed product. It would be amazing to see this performed, especially with the budget that it deserves. And yet, even reading the script, the familiar Rowling magic is imprinted on every page. It might be a format totally alien to most readers, but this is still Harry Potter.

Major spoilers ahead – don’t read any further unless you’ve read the book!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child cover

The script begins nineteen years after the events of the series, opening with the same scene that was featured as the epilogue to Deathly Hallows. Harry is the overworked father to three children. His youngest son, Albus, is struggling with the weight of his family’s legacy. And there are ominous hints that darkness is about to return.

harry potter cursed child cast
The cast of the Potter family from the premiere at Palace Theatre, London, on 30 July 2016. Harry (Jamie Parker), Albus (Sam Clemmett), and Ginny (Poppy Miller).

The driving force behind the story is Harry’s fractured relationship with his son. Harry doesn’t know how to connect with Albus, whose experience at Hogwarts is one of isolation and shame. Harry is concerned that such isolation will lead his son down a dark path. The script skips through Albus’s first three years at the school in a quick montage of scenes, before it finally settles at the beginning of his fourth year. Albus decides to correct one of his father’s mistakes by going back in time to prevent the death of Cedric Diggory (in Goblet of Fire). Of course, things go catastrophically wrong.

For many fans, the appeal of The Cursed Child will be revisiting their favourite characters, two decades later. And it does feel like dropping in on old friends. The older characters (Harry, Ron, Hermione) feel a little bit older – slower, wiser – but remain largely unchanged. Harry’s concerns about his parenting abilities are the most interesting development, providing some touching scenes throughout the story. The new characters are a mixed bag. Albus can be quite temperamental (perhaps a little too much like his father in Order of the Phoenix), showing moments of surliness around Harry, yet embracing a hasty leadership role when he’s convinced he’s making a good decision (invariably, he’s not). Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Draco, is the most enjoyable of new characters – he is a complete dork and the best lines of dialogue in the whole script are reserved for him. The fact that he is a Malfoy, burdened with his family’s dark past, makes his humour all the more unexpected.

The real highlight of the script is Albus’s friendship with Scorpius. Their friendship blossoms despite their families’ rivalry, or perhaps because of it. Albus and Draco both understand what it means to live in the shadow of a father’s reputation. Harry believes that Scorpius is a dark influence on his son; he is incapable of seeing past the Malfoy name, incapable of seeing their bond. His old prejudices guide his decisions. Yet the friendship between a Potter and a Malfoy feels like an excellent coda to the books, a healing gesture that reinforces the whole series’ focus on friendship.

One of the things that always disappointed me at the end of Deathly Hallows was the lack of resolution to Harry’s relationship with Draco Malfoy. Draco is glimpsed in the epilogue, standing near the Hogwarts Express, but it seemed like a paltry conclusion for one of the main antagonists throughout the series. The Cursed Child rectifies the situation, featuring numerous scenes in which Harry and Draco bond over their inability to talk to their children. Fatherhood has united them; they both fear that their past has somehow blighted their children’s future. Old animosities are forgotten. It feels like a fitting ending to their story.

harry potter cursed child cast malfoy
The cast of the Malfoy family from the premiere at Palace Theatre, London, on 30 July 2016. Draco (Alex Price) and Scorpius (Anthony Boyle).

The plot directly addresses one of the largest flaws in the Harry Potter series: the accessibility of time travel. Prisoner of Azkaban saw Hermione using a Time-Turner to go back in time so that she could attend more classes at Hogwarts. When Voldemort returned in later novels, many readers began asking why the Ministry of Magic didn’t simply use the Time-Turners to go back and prevent his return. Or his rise to power in the first place. The existence of such powerful magical objects seemed like a Get Out of Jail Free card that had unexplored implications for the wider universe. Rowling hastily addressed this in Half-Blood Prince by mentioning that the entire stock of Ministry Time-Turners had been destroyed in a battle. (But it raises another question: why was such a powerful object given to a child for the trivial purpose of assisting her class scheduling?) So it is wonderful to see in The Cursed Child that Rowling returns to this idea, showing us the dangers of meddling with time. Albus’s attempts to save Cedric lead to a series of increasingly horrible alternate futures (in the style of Back to the Future 2), leading to a dystopian story where the characters are fighting to restore the original timeline.

The journey through time and alternate realities allows Rowling to revisit some of our favourite characters from the series. The cameos are sure to delight readers, even if it starts to feel like a “Best of Harry Potter” reel towards the end. And yet each cameo completely works within the context of the story. It also provides a glimpse of alternate versions of our favourite characters, including timelines where Ron and Hermione were never married. In some of these dystopian timelines, they have become twisted and bitter, defeated by their circumstances, adding a tragic dimension to the story. It starts to feel very much like Voltaire’s Candide after a while, with the characters (and readers) dogmatically convinced that the original timeline is the best of all possible worlds.

Of particular interest is a timeline where Scorpius finds himself the most popular boy at Hogwarts. Watching his moral struggle as he chooses between personal gain and the greater good is a classic Harry Potter moment. Choices like this might’ve been repeated ad nauseam through the series, but they are provide a wonderful lesson for the play’s intended demographic.

harry potter cursed child cast weasleys
The cast of the Granger-Weasley family from the premiere at Palace Theatre, London, on 30 July 2016. Ron (Paul Thornley), Hermione (Noma Dumezweni), and Rose (Cherrelle Skeete).

When it first became clear that a substantial portion of the story would involve a return to the events of the book series, I was bracing myself for the worst. It had the potential to become nostalgic fan service, pandering to the desires of the audience to see Harry, Ron, and Hermione continue their teenage adventures at Hogwarts. (And that is always the danger when introducing time travel into a beloved franchise – it revisits the past without adding something new.) And in some ways, the script’s focus on the past does mean that the time of Albus and Scorpius isn’t given the attention that it deserves. In the haste to return to the past, the future is lacking the sort of detail that made the books so wonderful to read. Yet it’s hard to complain about the plot as it circles around the events of the books, glimpsing familiar scenes from the past, yet distorting them into something new, using them as launching points for new timelines. The script functions as both prologue and epilogue to the book series, a bracketing narrative that may seem too saccharine in some places, but draws strength upon the familiar emotional points from the books.

My biggest disappointment with The Cursed Child was the lack of character development surrounding Delphi. She is a new character who has quite a significant role to play, especially as she evolves into the antagonist in the second half of the story. The whole point of the Harry Potter series – literally, the entire point of the series – is that people always have a choice to be good or bad. When Harry put on the Sorting Hat in Philosopher’s Stone, he made a conscious decision to reject evil. Tom Riddle’s isolation may have started him down the dark path, but he had so many chances to redeem himself. Yet, in The Cursed Child, Delphi’s choice to become evil is never fully explored. We are asked to accept her as evil due to the simple fact of her parentage and upbringing. She is never given the chance for redemption. And, as a result, she feels decidedly two-dimensional in comparison to the other characters.

I’m sure many readers, particularly the younger ones, will find the play script a bit daunting at first. It demonstrates (and I know I’m repeating myself) that plays are meant to be performed, not read. The script definitely doesn’t have the depth of description of the novels, nor the little background details that brought the world to life. That is left to the production team. Yet within a few pages, it’s easy to adjust and imagine the events of the play unfolding in the mind’s eye. Readers will certainly be assisted in their prior knowledge of the locations and characters, either from the books or the movies. Yet I imagine it would be a real joy to see this unfold live on stage; it is the sort of script that begs for an elaborate production.

The Cursed Child feels like an appropriate coda for the beloved series. It revisits the characters and events from the books, but gives a strong sense of progression, of time having passed. It is certainly not a new novel, and readers shouldn’t expect it to serve the same purpose, but it does demonstrate that the franchise is capable of evolving beyond the novel format. Most importantly, for those of you who – like me – were happy for the opportunity to spend more time at Hogwarts, the script does not disappoint.

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