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, this spoiler-free review is for you. If you have, go find the spoilery document, in which I go into a lot more detail.
On July 31, 2016, the “special rehearsal edition script” of the dramatic production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which debuted in London on July 30, was released. A milder version of the excitement attending the releases of the previous Potter books played out, with people attending midnight releases and staying up all night to tear through the book (I was not one of those people, but mostly because I was out of the country on release day). There are, however, some differences this time around, and they’re worth taking into account.
Cursed Child is not a new J. K. Rowling book. Her name is prominent on the cover, but it appears under the much smaller words “based on an original new story by” and is followed by the names of her collaborators, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. The script’s playwright is, in fact, Jack Thorne (Tiffany directed the play).
Not everyone agrees that Rowling’s writing is stellar, but her storytelling style is imbued with a kind of magic that is lacking here. Yes, the format is very different; this is a play script, not a novel, and therefore, we mostly stay out of the characters’ heads, though we get glimpses of their thoughts via stage directions. We’re used, as readers of the Harry Potter books, to spending most of our time with Harry Potter; here, on the other hand, there seem to be at least three protagonists, and the most engaging of them isn’t a Potter at all. The script is not as polished as it could be, which makes a certain amount of sense, though as an English scholar, I’m a little less forgiving than many will be. Scripts do get published. It is not impossible to edit them. Good playwrights are amazing writers. Thorne’s script seems only so-so as a work of literature, and some of the lines are cringeworthy. I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary, for instance, for the characters to speak the moral of the story aloud. For that matter, I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary for the moral of the story to be so obvious.
I won’t go into too much detail regarding the plot, as there are a lot of potential spoilers looming here, but to take you a few pages in (i.e., about as far as you would get in five minutes or so of reading): we pick up exactly where the novels left off, with Harry’s middle child, Albus, about to start his first year at Hogwarts. He is anxious he’ll be sorted into Slytherin, and Harry tries to reassure him by pointing out that the Sorting Hat gives everyone a choice. On the train, Albus and his cousin Rose — Hermione and Ron’s daughter, who is barely in the play and seems little more than a carbon copy of Hermione — look for a compartment to sit in and come across Scorpius Malfoy, Draco’s son. This is a neat scene because Scorpius is such a great character: smart, anxious, funny, and sensitive to the social difficulties involved in his making friends with Harry Potter’s son. I would gladly spend a whole novel with Scorpius. How absolutely wonderful would a series of book revolving around Draco Malfoy’s son be? How amazing would it be to see Draco as a struggling father striving to come to terms with a child both brighter and kinder than he ever was? There’s almost endless potential here.
The problem is that Albus is not nearly as likable. Shy child Albus is quickly swept away as the play takes us forward, brief scene by brief scene, to Albus and Scorpius’s fourth year at Hogwarts, by which point Albus has become a sulky, self-righteous little brat. Harry isn’t behaving very well either; the two of them constantly misunderstand each other. Harry pulls away from Albus because he’s not as easy to connect with as his two other children, and Albus despises Harry because he’s constantly in Harry’s shadow and sees himself as a disappointment. I know the play was written considerably before The Force Awakens came out, but it’s sometimes difficult not to see young Albus Potter as having a lot in common with young Ben Solo.
Complications ensue, a villain emerges, friendships are tested, and members of both generations must go through some painful experiences, all in service of repairing (with luck) the rift between father and son. It’s a comfortable sort of plot, and there are some twists and turns along the way, but few of them feel unexpected to me. My favourite sequence still seems rather too familiar because I’ve seen this sort of thing before in other stories of the same type (sorry for the vagueness, but I’m attempting to steer clear of spoilers here). That bit, notably, focuses on Scorpius, not Albus.
Another problem is one that carries over from the novels, though it becomes even more noticeable in the play: where are the female characters? Rose seems at first to be important, but she quickly disappears. Ginny and Hermione both have their roles to play, but Ginny is there mostly to chide Harry gently for his lousy relationship with Albus, while Hermione is more or less a plot device. The emotional focus is on the Harry/Albus and Draco/Scorpius pairs. That’s great. Father-son stories are nice, as are stories of friendship. However, the Harry Potter stories famously focus on three friends: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They are equals in the friendship, and they go through their adventures together. Rose, here, appears to allow the playwright to replicate the triangular friendship of the older generation, but Rose herself is deprived of characterisation and agency and treated mostly as an object of desire. The other female character who could be seen as replacing her as the third angle of the triangle, Delphi, is the Repressive Love Interest Who Comes Between the True Friendship of the Male Leads. By the end of the play, it’s apparent that all the characters who matter as characters are male.
It is entirely possible this all works better on stage. Perhaps some of the awkward dialogue has been dropped or smoothed out. The special effects are probably amazing; the descriptions of them in the stage directions are certainly enticing. If the actor who plays Scorpius is worthy of the material he’s been given, that character is going to be wonderful to watch. I would love to see how the production manages spells, transformations, owls, and the Sorting Hat, not to mention the terrifying scene involving the Trolley Witch of the Hogwarts Express. I’m just not sure all the pyrotechnics will be enough to save the play. It’s got potential. The idea of Harry Potter’s and Draco Malfoy’s sons becoming friends is just begging to be played around with. However, when I’m reading through the script and am constantly being distracted because I’m reminded of things I’ve seen in The Force Awakens, the Very Potter Musical trilogy, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s a distinct possibility the story itself may need work.