Magical realism: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Set aside your cynicism: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has much to teach anyone interested in creating a great experience

Through a stroke of good fortune, my partner, our 16 year-old son and I recently got tickets for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the two-part, ‘hottest ticket in town’ in London. Friends had bought them, couldn’t use them and there we were, amongst the hardcore fans, tourists and coach parties.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (AKA HPATCC) is the play by Jack Thorne, based on a story by Thorne, JK Rowling and John Tiffany. Set 19 years after the last book and movie, the focus is on the children of the central characters and their often troubled relationships with their celebrated parents.

For anyone interested in creativity, storytelling and how to make memorable live experiences, HPATCC is a must-see – a fascinating attempt to go against the grain.

Firstly, because of the concept. “Imagine Star Wars was opening in one cinema in one city and that was the only place you could see it,” is how producer Sonia Friedman has described the idea. Presumably in future there will be multiple productions around the world (Vegas?) but, for now, London is the only place to see the play.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

Outside the theatre were fans wearing Hogwarts uniforms, wizards’ robes and one, otherwise perfectly normal-looking young woman, with a Harry Potter scar drawn onto her forehead. Son and I looked aghast, but our cynicism was rapidly dispersed by the smiles on faces and genuine joy as the audience filed in. No-one else in the world was getting to do this right now: no-one watching on TV, or online. Just us.

The sense of communal experience was reinforced, in our experience at least, by the way the play is split into two halves. For us, that meant seeing it on consecutive nights. We were in the same seats, as were most of the people around us, so the nods and smiles of recognition on the second night added to the genuine warmth exuded all around.

11. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, photo credit Manuel Harlan
In one memorable scene in the play, an enchanted bookcase comes to life as Hermione, Harry and Ron attempt to discover its secret. Photo: Manuel Harlan

And then there are the effects. We are so used to being dazzled in the cinema by incredible VFX but pulling off similar feats live is something else entirely. The ‘illusions & magic’ team on HPATCC of Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher have produced moments that are literally breathtaking, drawing spontaneous applause from the audience. Many are based on established magicians’ tricks, but they are pulled off with such alacrity and verve that they produce a sense of wonder that the cinema, for all its technological firepower, rarely matches.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

And in a world obsessed by sharing, HPATCC actively encourages restraint. Critics at preview shows were sworn to secrecy about the plot. Even now, when the publication of the script has surely rendered such precautions obsolete, the audience is presented with badges at the end of each performance urging them to ‘Keep the Secret’ of HPATCC’s plot. As much as it discourages ‘spoilers’ this is again all about building a sense of having been part of something special. Now you too know the secret. You’re part of the club. Don’t spoil it for others. It’s highly ‘social’, just not in the devalued contemporary sense of the word.

Yes the play’s too long. Yes, some of the expository dialogue is painful. Yes, it will have had access to resources beyond most productions. But Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is an extraordinary, cynicism-defeating experience.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is at the Palace Theatre, London, details here

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