I saw Potted Potter with a couple of friends this afternoon. If you haven’t heard of it, you are in good company. A lot of people in Toronto have heard of it, as there are banners advertising it all over the city right now. Briefly: it’s a 70-minute dramatic Harry Potter parody that purports to get through all seven Potter books. All the parts are played by two guys, Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, who appear on stage as “Dan” and “Jeff.” I believe the play was born at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; the two actor-creators have produced other “potted” (i.e., condensed) plays as well.
I had neither high nor low expectations going in. I am quite fond of another Potter parody, A Very Potter Musical, which successfully makes affectionate fun of the Potter series while simultaneously forming a coherent narrative and even offering actual character development (and not just of Harry). I am thus aware that it is possible to parody Harry Potter well. When I first saw the poster for Potted Potter, I was pretty dubious, but it seemed to be getting good reviews, so I decided to give it a chance. I enjoy good parody and am always happy when I stumble across some. Unfortunately, Potted Potter is not good parody.
Okay, admittedly, it’s definitely for kids. The subject matter is taken from a series of children’s books, and the creators have decided to aim their play at the prime Book 1 crowd (8-11-year-olds) rather than the prime Book 7 crowd (15-18-year-olds). I do not accept the whole “but it’s aimed at kids!” thing as an excuse. Certain children’s entertainers, especially those who wander on over to Hollywood, seem convinced that children are incapable of paying attention to anything that doesn’t involve a lot of screaming and frenetic physical comedy. Clarkson and Turner yell at each other, spray silly string everywhere, and at one point organise a theatre-wide Quidditch game that ends with them shooting half the audience with a huge water gun. I would have no problem with any of these elements, which are potentially fun, if they were accompanied by some sort of narrative coherence. Instead, we have a setup in which straight-man Jeff attempts to retell the seven stories while wild-card Dan constantly undermines him. There’s nothing else here. Jeff sometimes “plays” Harry for ten or fifteen seconds. Dan “plays” all the other characters, though none of them get much time on stage; Voldemort and Ron are really the only two who appear more than once or twice and actually interact with Harry. A scene involving Dumbledore goes on for far too long, encompassing a gag that becomes reminiscent of Family Guy, and not in a good way.
There are certainly funny bits; the oversized Golden Snitch is amusing, and the dissection of Book 3 on a series of PowerPoint slides works well. The big problem is that this isn’t parody. It’s a couple of guys yelling about Rowling’s books for an hour and a bit. Parody comments intelligently on the original work, often pointing out its inherent flaws by exaggerating them. It doesn’t have to be nasty. Some of the best parody is written by people who love the original works on which the parodic adaptations are based. Potted Potter points out the flaws in the books, but it doesn’t do so via exaggeration; it does so via the two actors explaining to the audience that the books have flaws. A retelling involving the storytellers putting on deliberately inappropriate voices and mannerisms does not really have anything to say about the original. Potted Potter should be billed not as a parody but as a comic recap. When all your jokes come from you running around frenetically and being silly for reasons not connected to the actual story, you’re not writing a parody.
It’s also worth noting that children are not stupid. Sure, it’s fun to watch someone get covered with silly string or be forced to dress up a a Golden Snitch. However, if there’s nothing more to watch, all the zaniness gets kind of boring. I’ve seen some great children’s shows that acknowledge the intelligence of all their viewers, child and adult both. Entertainment that just goes BWAAAAAAAAAAAA will catch a child’s attention for a time but will prompt only cheap laughs. Give kids a chance to become involved in the story, especially when it’s a story they already love.
I’m sure plenty of people have enjoyed this show. I’m sad to say I’m not one of them. However, if an actual Potter parody ever makes its way to Toronto, I’ll be the first in line.