I have some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I’m going to organise them into two documents, one without spoilers and the other with lots and lots of spoilers. If you haven’t read the script or seen the play, the spoiler-free review is for you. If you have, you’re in the right place; this spoilery document goes into a lot more detail.
LET ME JUST REPEAT THAT ONE MORE TIME: HERE BE SPOILERS. IF YOU ARE STILL READING BUT HAVE NOT YET FINISHED THE SCRIPT OR SEEN THE PLAY, STAAAWWWP. THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a stage play that debuted in London on July 30, 2016. The “special rehearsal edition script” was released one day later. This is not exactly normal for plays. Of course, the whole Cursed Child phenomenon is not exactly normal for plays. However, play scripts do frequently appear in book form, so I’ll be applying the same standards to this one that I would to any other. It should be noted that the producers of this book seem to have been attempting to dodge these standards via the “special rehearsal edition script” label, which tells us we are obliged to be forgiving, as this is just a “rehearsal edition.” Granted, so is every other play published ever, but whatever.
J. K. Rowling’s name is the biggest one on the cover, but Rowling herself is simply billed as one of the three people who produced the “original story” on which the play is “based.” Of the other two, John Tiffany is the play’s director and Jack Thorne its playwright. Rowling’s signature humour and mystery-style plotting are not in evidence here. There’s some humour, and perhaps it works better on the stage, but it falls a bit flat on the page. The plotting is quite transparent. It’s possible to figure out what’s going on very early on. After that, most of the story plays out in a fairly predictable way.
The basic premise has some promise. As in the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we get young Albus Severus Potter, Harry and Ginny’s middle child, about to head off for his first year at Hogwarts. On the train, he and his cousin Rose, Ron and Hermione’s daughter, run into lonely Scorpius Malfoy, already an outcast before he even sets foot in Hogwarts. Rose quickly makes herself scarce; Albus, intrigued by this bright, sensitive boy, stays. The idea of Harry Potter’s son making friends with Draco Malfoy’s son is an intriguing one, especially in light of Scorpius being an instantly likable character. The whole situation becomes even more interesting when Albus is unexpectedly sorted into Slytherin. There’s your central conflict right there, and it’s virtually stuffed with potential.
However, the play skims briefly over the next four years, during which time Albus apparently undergoes a personality transplant. By his second year, he hates his father, is no longer on speaking terms with Rose, sees Hogwarts as a place of punishment, and has basically turned into Kylo Ren. Yes, this script would have been solidified long before the release of The Force Awakens, so this can’t be anything but an unfortunate coincidence, but it’s hard not to notice that we’ve once again got a famous-father-has-a-son-he-doesn’t-understand-and-drives-him-to-the-dark-side-via-neglect story here. True, Albus doesn’t go full Dark Side, but he’s unnecessarily nasty. Harry isn’t going to win any Father of the Year medals either. Neither of them is easy to identify with. Harry, in particular, makes some incredibly boneheaded decisions (including, at one point, bullying Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts, into spying on Albus and forcibly separating him from Scorpius). Harry Potter may not be one of the world’s great thinkers, but he should assumedly have developed some common sense by the age of forty.
The main crisis of the story involves Amos Diggory’s desire for the Ministry of Magic to use a Time-Turner it has recovered from a Voldemort loyalist to save his son Cedric’s life. Albus overhears the conversation and decides to stick it to his father by dragging Scorpius off to steal the Time-Turner from the office of the Minister for Magic, Hermione Granger. They then team up with Delphi Diggory, Amos’s twenty-something niece, who has a plan for saving Cedric. As you can see, all the characters appear to have taken stupid pills at some point. The brightest of them all is Scorpius, who keeps pointing out how many things can go wrong in a time-travel story. No one ever listens to Scorpius.
The problems with the script are, at this point, multiplying like crazy. The raid on Hermione’s office leads to a pointless and profoundly icky scene in which Albus, all Polyjuiced up to look like Ron, maintains his cover by kissing his Aunt Hermione on the lips (twice) and talking about having babies with her. The time travel probably looks amazing on stage, and perhaps that helps distract viewers from the fact that it violates all the time-travel rules laid out in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Suddenly switching time-travel models because it’s convenient to do so is up there with giving a character a personality transplant because it works for the plot…which, incidentally, happens here too. The mucking about with time causes some changes. On the first go, they’re relatively mild (compared to what happens on the second go, at least), but they involve accidentally breaking Ron and Hermione up. Apparently, the two turn into entirely different people when they’re not together. When Ron marries Padma Patil instead, he loses his love for jokes and becomes a whipped husband (har har har). Hermione, on the other hand, transforms into a truly horrible person. Not only does she not become Minister for Magic, she ends up an embittered, cruel Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher who out-Snapes Snape to a ridiculous degree. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: all she needs is love! Sadly, this is not the play’s only fun misogyny, but it will do for now.
The trip to the past also erases Rose and her brother Hugo from existence, which Scorpius (still the one character who deserves to survive all this and go on to star in a seven-book series of his own and my God, I want to see a Scorpius Malfoy and the I Don’t Even Care Because Anything With Scorpius in It Will Be Awesome novel) points out, but it doesn’t really seem to register with Albus, who is all, “Cedric is still dead. Let’s go back and try again!” The second attempt is the best because it erases Albus from existence by causing a chain of events that ends in the death of Harry Potter at the Battle of Hogwarts and the triumph of Voldemort. Scorpius finds himself alone in a hellscape in which he is worshipped by the other evil Hogwarts students for his cruelty and his sudden proficiency at Quidditch. Luckily, Scorpius has kept his old personality, and he quickly finds the only person at this new appalling Hogwarts, in which students torture Muggle-borns in the dungeons and forget to wipe the blood off their shoes afterwards, he can trust: Professor Snape.
Hurrah for Snape, but you may be noticing something else by now: this story is dark. It’s unrelentingly dark. Dark can be good, but this much darkness in a Harry Potter story needs some comic relief that doesn’t fall flat, and there’s not much here. Snape provides a bit by being generally awesome and teaming up with post-apocalyptic versions of Hermione and Ron to try and fail to save the world, and frankly, this alternate-Hogwarts section of the play is its strongest part, partly because the mix of darkness and humour almost works here and partly because Scorpius is a much more appealing protagonist than Albus.
However, even this strong portion of the story has its problems. Chief among them is the fact that the eventual culmination of the sequence involves Snape, Hermione, and Ron sacrificing themselves so Scorpius can return the world to normal. I know I’ve seen this sort of thing more than once before in time-travel narratives, and it’s bugging me that I can’t think exactly where, with the exception of the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which Cordelia ensures that Buffy never comes to Sunnydale and turns the town into the same kind of hellscape we get here, only with vampires. In fact, this part of the play follows that episode almost scene by scene, right down to the death of the character who causes the rift in the first place and the sacrifices of several important characters so that the hellscape can be erased. I know I’ve seen the trope elsewhere too. Oh, wait, here’s one: X-Men: Days of Future Past. The idea of killing off one’s protagonists gruesomely in one reality so they can restore another one has, in fact, been done. A lot. I like it, but there are too many echoes here.
Another problem with the play can probably be blamed on sloppiness. Scorpius mentions several times that the Cedric Diggory of this dark reality is a Death Eater, but we never actually see him get this information anywhere. Cedric never appears at Evil Hogwarts. Scorpius seems to have picked up the information offstage. Perhaps this problem is the result of a cut scene, but it’s quite jarring and should have been noticed by an editor.
Once Scorpius has saved the day, he sadly takes the same stupid pills as everybody else and holds onto the Time-Turner instead of giving it to the damn grown-ups, thus setting off the final part of the plot: the revelation that Delphi Diggory is actually the daughter of Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange, and she’s mighty pissed that Scorpius destroyed her nice hellscape. Creating that hellscape has, of course, been her intent all along.
I don’t even know where to start with this bit. For one thing, I guessed who Delphi was and what she wanted way before I should have. Thorne doesn’t seem to be able to handle red herrings with Rowling’s skill. Having a female villain is a nice idea, but Voldemort’s daughter? Really? That sticks us right back in the “morality is inherited” box from which the play seems to be striving to escape by placing a Potter in Slytherin and making a Malfoy delightful. Delphi’s villainy also highlights that fun misogyny again, not because women shouldn’t be villains — scheme away, evil women — but because she’s basically the only major female character who has the potential to be more than a plot device. Aside from Delphi, Hermione is the most prominent, but she’s at the mercy of the plot and well outside the story’s emotional core. Rose at first promises to provide the third angle of a triangle that will mirror the Harry-Ron-Hermione relationship, but she has almost nothing to do and eventually vanishes entirely, except as the object of Scorpius’s desire. Ginny has a decent-sized role, but she seems to exist entirely to encourage Harry to connect with his son. We never actually see her interacting with Albus. Minerva McGonagall has little to do besides scold, and Dolores Umbridge gets only a mercifully brief cameo. Delphi is so obviously the villain in large part because she immediately becomes the repressive force who threatens to divide true friends Albus and Scorpius. There’s nothing to like about her and thus no feeling of betrayal when she reveals her true intent. By the end of the story, our attention is all on the Harry/Albus and Draco/Scorpius pairs. This is a story of male relationships. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it would be nice if the women were more than window dressing and plot machinery. Hell…I don’t think the play even passes the Bechdel test, despite its several female characters.
Incidentally, one thing that does strike me about Albus’s friendship with Scorpius is that it plays out almost like a romance. I would be very surprised if there weren’t already some Albus/Scorpius slash fiction in existence. For a while, I genuinely thought the play might go in that direction. It ultimately provides a coda in which the playwright makes it very, very clear that Scorpius is really into girls, damn it (a cringeworthy line for you: “And yes, logic would dictate I should be pursuing Polly — or allowing her to pursue me — she’s a notorious beauty, after all — but a Rose is a Rose”) and does a wink, wink, nudge, nudge sort of thing about Albus’s attraction to older women (ha ha ha…it’s hilarious that a woman in her twenties took advantage of a fourteen-year-old boy!). So no same-sex relationship for us, despite all the hugging.
Eventually, father-son bonding saves the day, and everybody gets to go home. The climax involves both Harry’s generation and Albus’s, which is nice, but there are way too many characters, some of whom are clearly on stage just because we would miss Hermione, Ron, and Ginny if they had been left behind. Even Draco and Scorpius are more or less shoved aside during the final confrontation. One of the things Albus learns during the play is that not everything is about him, but the climax more or less contradicts that. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Thorne, you don’t need to have your characters state your moral out loud. Holy moly.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate this play with the fire of a thousand suns. There are some good elements. Harry’s confrontations with Draco often work well, and the reappearance of Snape is both amusing and touching. I’m sure the special effects are astounding. Scorpius Malfoy is the friend of my heart and needs to go on more adventures in which he quietly and logically saves the world while Albus indulges in emo sulking in the background. But the whole enterprise is uneven. In the end, the play just isn’t very well written.