There was a moment, about three hours into a performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last weekend, when the 1500 people in the audience, myself very much included, let out a collective gasp.
That communal intake of breath was not in reaction to one of the Broadway play’s many dazzling special effects, nor the blasts of fire shooting from wands, nor characters vanishing into thin air — although those drew plenty of gasps as well.
No, this particular gasp followed one of Cursed Child’s main characters saying something kind of shitty to his friend.
Just before that moment, the Lyric Theatre was dead silent. After our involuntary reaction, we all chuckled. It was an acknowledgement of just how wrapped up we had been in the events taking place on the stage and, specifically, in the friendship of these two Hogwarts students. It was also when each of us realised that all 1499 other people in the room were feeling the same thing we were.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child works at every volume, whether it’s blowing you away with stage magic and pyrotechnics or mesmerising you with quiet conversations between characters old and new.
Strip away all the eye candy and the play would still hold your focus; it’s a down-to-earth and relatable story of parents and kids, of friendships being tested, of how memories of the past control our present.
It’s a more grown-up Potter, not only because its story centres around a middle-aged Harry, but because it isn’t afraid to slow things down and get intimate.
Cursed Child, which opened on Broadway in April and has been running in London for two years, is like nothing else on Broadway today.
One, it’s a straight play — that is, a non-musical, which don’t tend to perform very well or last very long up against The Lion King and its ilk.
Two, the play is a five-hour, 15-minute epic divided up into two parts. You watch Part One in the afternoon, then Part Two in the evening (or on separate days, if you want). The two hours’ break in between is just enough time to get dinner in a crowded Broadway-adjacent restaurant. It’s an all-day affair.
It’s also unique among Broadway productions for the sheer amount of homework you’re expected to do if you want to understand any of it. Cursed Child assumes you’ve read seven books (or watched eight movies) and don’t need much of a reminder as to what went down in Harry’s teenage years.
None of that has been a setback for Cursed Child, which has been packing house after house since its premiere and will surely do so well into the future.
The experience starts as soon as you step through the front doors of the Lyric, formerly home to the disastrous Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.
Since then, the theatre has been completely renovated and remodelled specifically for Potter. There’s the Hogwarts logo on all the carpeting, there’s Patronus artwork on the walls, there’s of course a wide variety of merch. (During my visit, one staffer said the Hufflepuff stuff sells out fastest.)
All around, the Lyric has signposts with entreaties that you who are about to see this exclusive Potter story share nothing of what you have seen within. The show’s official hashtag is #KeepTheSecrets.
There’s even a spoiler warning on the program that tells you reading it will ruin the surprise of which characters will show up in the play. That is, if you care about that sort of surprise. (And if you haven’t already read the script, which was released in hardcover book form on the eve of the London premiere in 2016.)
The seven principal members of the cast are the same actors who starred in the London performance, and they’re all fantastic.
In particular, Anthony Boyle steals the show as Draco Malfoy’s teenaged son Scorpius, going full-on hormonal geek and punching through the darkest moments with reliable comic relief, but also wringing out tears when the pretense drops and we learn about the less funny side of growing up Malfoy.
Scenes alternate between Harry and his old friends and their kids over at Hogwarts, with their paths crossing intermittently. The teenaged students get up to some lighthearted heroic japes at school, which of course go catastrophically wrong. Meanwhile, Harry and his peers navigate their new adult lives in the wizarding world.
Harry is still haunted by the ghosts of his past and hasn’t fully moved on from his guilt and from what he lost, and his relationship with former classmate (and former Voldemort flunky) Draco is less of an alliance and more of a chilly detente.
The story’s central tension is the relationship between Harry and his middle kid, Albus Severus Potter. We last saw him at the end of the seventh book, heading off to Hogwarts concerned that he would get sorted into Slytherin.
Slight spoiler: That’s precisely what happens, but we find that it’s less of a cause of Albus’ distance from his Dad and more of, if anything, a symptom of it.
The play’s strongest moments are these stripped-down scenes that focus on the characters, but the magic is impressive as well. It isn’t just pyrotechnics and wire stunts, although there’s plenty of that involved.
Parts of it feel like watching a David Copperfield show, with disappearing actors, actors morphing into other actors, popping out of fireplaces. The real wizardry is the way that Cursed Child makes sure to draw your eyes to where the cool stuff is happening, all the while misdirecting you from seeing the way the gimmicks actually work.
While this isn’t a musical, there is still music, dancing, and even a little bit of singing. There are occasional moments where we see wizards going about their day at the train station or the school that take the form of choreographed dance numbers.
The whole thing is set to a score by the distinctive British electronic musician Imogen Heap. I didn’t know that going in, but as the lights came up for the first intermission I was already flipping through my program, certain I’d see her name in there, so unmistakable was the sound. Later in the show, a few snippets of her most popular song, “Hide and Seek”, play during one scene.
Cursed Child is serious in tone, but every now and then it includes a moment of fan service — I don’t want to get into specifics, but we did finally see Certain Conversations that many fans wish Certain Characters would finally get to have, outside of the realm of a million pieces of fan fiction. It felt a little on the nose to me, sometimes, but it didn’t distract from the storytelling.
Tickets for Cursed Child can cost hundreds of dollars, so you’re probably curious if it’s “worth the money”. That’s an impossible question to answer for everyone.
Thankfully, this isn’t a Hamilton situation where the show has completely sold out to StubHub resellers and you’re forced to pay several times the face value just to see it. You can still buy face-value tickets, and even the ones being resold aren’t that much more than the original price.
For your money, you get a five-hour roller coaster of a story that’s riveting from start to finish, all bracketed with a very pleasant experience in the theatre itself if you want to have some drinks and buy some more Potter-branded stuff.
From the choice of medium to the expense of the production to its sheer length, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a wild experiment in so many ways, but it’s all paid off.