“Jukebox musicals” have been around for decades, and they are unfairly maligned. For every horror (I write as someone who sat through the Spice Girls musical Viva Forever!), there are many others that are adored by critics and audiences.
The formula is simple: take an established artist’s back catalogue and weave a story through the greatest hits, ensuring that fans get a nostalgic, entertaining, undemanding night out. It might not be high art, but the best are genuinely joyful. If you offered me a choice between seeing Waiting for Godot or Mamma Mia! again, I’d pick the boozy, sun-drenched promiscuity and high-octane Swedish pop in a heartbeat. Yes, sometimes the plot has to bend to accommodate the bangers; sometimes the writer of the book just gives up. (In Mamma Mia! the cast does “Waterloo” as an encore, presumably because trying to weave metaphors about a land battle in Belgium into a light-hearted romp on a Greek island was beyond even Benny and Björn.)
I mention all this because the most useful way to think about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is as a musical without music. It’s the only way to make sense of it. Take the preview period: most West End plays have a run of a few months and therefore a couple of weeks of previews. The Cursed Child had its first performance on 7 June but the official opening night is 30 July. Leaving that much scope for tinkering is logical if the producers expect it to run for years and spawn versions in other cities. It’s already fully booked in London until May 2017.
Here come the spoilers: the plot follows Albus Severus Potter, the middle child of Harry Potter and his wife, Ginny (née Weasley). He starts at Hogwarts in the same year as Rose Granger-Weasley, the daughter of Hermione and Ron, and they expect to be friends, given their parents’ long record of hanging around together, doing homework and defeating the evil Lord Voldemort.
But Rose is kind of annoying, in that way that child characters onstage often are, because the actor simply channels themselves at drama school. Instead, Albus strikes up a conversation with Scorpius Malfoy, the sweet, shy scion of a clan full of Voldemort supporters who all have names like cheap aftershaves (Draco, Lucius, Brutus, Abraxas). When Albus arrives at Hogwarts, he gets sorted into Slytherin – the house of his father’s mortal enemies – along with his new best friend, Scorpius.
From there, the play whips through two school years, with Albus maturing into a right little sod who hates his dad in a melodramatic teenage way. (This isn’t helped by the 22-year-old actor Sam Clemmett’s overwrought delivery, which sometimes veers into Frank Spencer territory.) At home one night, Albus overhears the wheelchair-bound father of Cedric Diggory, a beloved Hogwarts student killed by Lord Voldemort’s army, accusing Harry of causing his son’s death.
As readers of the books will know, at the end of The Goblet of Fire, Cedric and Harry competed in the Triwizard Tournament. They reached the cup they were seeking, which was hidden at the centre of a maze, at the same time and sportingly agreed to seize it at the same time so they would be joint winners. Unfortunately, the trophy turned out to be a trap: a teleportation device taking them to Lord Voldemort. And he was only interested in Harry, so he ordered a minion to “kill the spare”. Unreasonably but understandably, Mr Diggory holds Harry responsible for his son’s death. Less understandably, so does the earwigging Albus. He decides to steal a newly discovered Time-Turner, so that he can go back to his father’s past and make sure Cedric survives.
Clearly Albus has never read any Muggle science fiction because, as you might guess, this is a terrible, terrible idea. But it does allow the audience to revisit the greatest hits, bringing loved (and hated) characters from the original series back from the dead to interact with the mini-Potter. This is the promise of the jukebox musical; it plays us the ones we know. Reviving fan favourites comes with a trade-off, though, as Scorpius and Albus don’t get time for much character development and Harry, Ron and Hermione are, in essence, adult-sized versions of the people they were at 18.
Is that a sacrifice worth making? Partly. This production is gorgeous. Sadly, the live owl used on the first night has gone, after it bolted into the audience and had to be coaxed back to safety by its trainer throughout the first act. But there are so many other spectacles that you don’t mind and, besides, we have Pokémon Go now. This production benefits from two movement directors from the innovative theatre company Frantic Assembly (which choreographed Abi Morgan’s haunting Lovesong, available online). There are magic tricks, surprise reveals, quick-change transformations and an intricate set, built to look like layered iron railway arches. Stand-alone staircases spin around to replicate the magical building at Hogwarts; actors float on wires to simulate swimming; and the somersaults of one fight scene are aided by a large cast of almost-invisible, black-clad assistants whirling the protagonists about.
One of the most stunning effects is the simplest: when time shifts, the lighting wobbles to make the set tremble like a subwoofer. The acting is generally first-rate, with Noma Dumezweni supplanting Emma Watson in my headcanon of Hermione and Anthony Boyle elevating Scorpius above the script’s potentially bland albino emo kid.
A great deal of love has gone into this production and at the preview shows I attended, I was surrounded by hardcore fans who adored it. (A voluble man in the row in front squealed when a familiar, purple-clad figure appeared.) Despite the hefty time demands – two performances of roughly two and a half hours – I suspect that younger fans will love it, too. Parents might appreciate the basic message, which is that you kids don’t know how good you have it.
However, there is one thing that niggles at me. Using alternate-universe versions of the original settings gives these plays the air of high-quality fan fiction. Potter fans are one of the largest fan communities online and have written every permutation of love interest and plot twist into the world built by J K Rowling. Going back into Hogwarts in the 1990s is what they do.
The use of time travel will also remind the more hardcore fans how much the world has moved on since the books were first published. The series was more socially conservative than you might now think. Rowling outed Dumbledore as gay in 2007 but the books don’t give any hint. And how many middle-class professional couples these days get married to their school sweetheart in their early twenties and have three kids?
Millions of children and adults read and loved the Harry Potter books, and thousands will see and love these plays. J K Rowling, her co-writers (Jack Thorne and John Tiffany) and the producers have chosen spectacle over story, nostalgia over novelty and motion over emotion.
This is a greatest hits compilation rather than an experimental new work. Does that matter? Not too much, when the tunes are this good. l