As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just come back from a lovely six-week trip in the UK.
The main reason I went (aside from my handsome man of course) was for something very special indeed. A Christmas gift from that very same handsome man two years ago in fact. Two golden tickets – just as magical and precious as Willy Wonka’s.
But of course you already know what they were for because the title of this post gave it away: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
That’s right, I got to see the play performed at London’s Palace Theatre. I am a lucky duck indeed!
I’d heard a lot of friends and family say that they’d been really disappointed after reading the script release, most giving up halfway to the end. For this reason, I gave the book a purposeful miss. Spoilers were bad enough, but to go with bad preconceptions?
As it was, the dread that it would actually turn out to be awful dampened my enthusiasm. The day came, and I was excited in a detached, objective way. In a “Well it’ll be a memorable experience no matter what” way.
We’d spent the morning and afternoon wandering around Soho and Chinatown, visiting some of our favourite shops that we wanted to return to from last time like Forbidden Planet and eating delicious Korean food at Assa.
A fortuitous impulse also led us to explore what looked like a New Age fortune teller’s storefront (my impulse, not Ricky’s, as he’s usually dragged by me into such places). Upon entering the wondrous House of MinaLima, however, it was clear that it was magical for reasons different from what we’d imagined. Part gallery, part shop, this 4-story exhibition of limited edition movie prints was put together by the graphic designers of Harry Potter. It felt like coming upon the Leaky Cauldron, crammed between two otherwise ordinary buildings as it was, and discovering Diagon Alley behind.
With our appetites wet for more Potterverse, It was finally time to join the queue and enter the Palace Theatre.
Entry is very strict: no food or drink of course, and absolutely no cameras at all whatsoever allowed on the premises. Luckily we knew about that in advance so we’d left ours behind rather than have them confiscated at the door like my humus and flaxseed cracker snack (RIP).
We entered into a dim, red velvet lobby where the air hummed with anticipation. A merch counter roped a snaking line to the right and a grandiose staircase led up to the left. I would be telling a dirty lie to say we went straight for the staircase; we climbed the stairs some minutes later each cradling a seemingly sacrosanct bag of memorabilia.
We’d opted for the cheapest seats at an astonishing fair £15 per night each, which meant climbing to the 4th floor. Footsteps muffled by the rich rugs, we were ushered at every level by staff in all-black suits save their choice of Hogwarts house tie.
“Your seats are all the way at the front of the balcony,” said a Ravenclaw woman in hushed tones. “Don’t put anything on the ledge.”
We thanked her and were instantly met by the vertigo of being on the topmost balcony and walking straight down to the railings.
Our tickets had warned that the handrails obstructed the view, but luckily, leaning forward just right, it gave a near perfect angle of the stage. There wasn’t much to be seen on it at the moment; just a flat grey surface with a circular criss-crossing design carved into the flooring.
“I bet that’s a trap door,” I told Ricky, smug with myself for having noticed what they’d likely hoped was a well concealed stage trick.
Others began to take their seats. Ricky’s extremely British keenness for queues meant we’d lined up almost an hour before the doors opened, which even with our purchases meant we had a while to wait.
He sprung for some beer and water bottles from the drinks counter because that was all our budget allowed. Cocktails were about £14, which drained the blood from our faces almost faster than it would have done the money from our bank accounts. I looked at the couple settling in beside us with their 4oz glasses as if they were full of pound coins rather than bubbly.
“No drinks on the ledge!” said a Hufflepuff member of staff, leaping out of what must have been the woodwork, the instant they set them down.
We all jumped and shared a nervous chuckle, no doubt all secretly contemplating the very real possibility that he was capable of Apparating.
And then it was time. An announcement told us not to use any Muggle recording gadgets (or risk penalties from the Ministry of Magic).
The lights dimmed.
[Spoilers in theatrical production and some aspects of the story ahead]
The next three hours were, quite simply, the closest I have ever felt to experiencing the wizarding world.
There were magic tricks on stage that, even after seeing them do the same thing several times throughout, I cannot explain with my own Muggle mind. I was right about the trap door – there were several – and yet the smooth speed of transitions rendered it so it still makes no physical sense to me how they could get in and out of those spaces in that short a time.
Then there was the choreography. Not dancing, per se, but a constant coordination of movement that looked (especially from our vantage point) like a kaleidoscope. The stage, which I thought to be of circular design, was actually a rotating dais across which objects, people, and large segments of rolling staircases passed.
All the while, the music, lighting effects, and architectural projections created an ethereal microcosm wherein Hogwarts was, for a short few hours, real.
At the core of it, however, was the story brought to life by the impeccable selection of actors. I wasn’t expecting it to be like the original series – and I’m glad, because it wasn’t. The adult Harry, Ron, and Hermione were entirely different from their teenaged selves, and yet exactly as you’d expect them to be nineteen years later. Their approaches and attempted solutions to the conflict were intelligent and mature with the noticeable loss of youth that comes of growing up. It was a delicate balance against their children, who held the torch for the original trio’s spirit and manner.
The result was one of depth, a psychological exploration that gave a different meaning to every event depending which way it was turned. This was made all the more prominent with the use of classic Rowling time travel. As cause and effect jammed up against each other like ice floes, alternate realities forced you to evaluate the events creating the ripples. What does it mean to be great? Is it possible to overcome our nature? What happens when our well-intended choices continue to result in failure? Above all else, how do our cravings for recognition and acceptance drive our past, present, and future?
I wasn’t expecting to be led down such a dark path at times. In particular, though I loved it, Harry’s nightmares and PTSD flashbacks to his abusive upbringing and traumatic exposure to death, murder, and violence in his formative years was hauntingly realistic.
But, in the classic way that the Harry Potter novels have always dealt with darkness, the mood was lightened by well placed comedy. It was the humour that surprised me most, truth be told, as I have the misconception that theatre is a serious business (my theatre friends will likely roll their eyes at this).
In any case, by the time the end of the first part drew near, I was literally on the edge of my seat. It was at this point that the stage production team brought out the big guns, because right when the plot dives into the heart of darkness, three Dementors descended from the ceiling. Gooseprickles rose on every surface of my flesh, and I could swear the temperature dropped as one flew from the confines of the stage and swept its ragged wisps of robes over the heads of the audience. It went all the way to the back, then floated up, up, up…until it rose in terrifying increments a foot from our front row seats where it loomed, hovered, and turned its faceless hood in our direction.
When the lights plunged us into darkness, I became aware that my clammy hands were gripping Ricky’s arm in rigor mortis terror. Even writing this out has my heart scrambling up my throat as if to escape. Sheesh. I’m such a big nerd.
We left the theatre in a daze.
For another blissful 24 hours, we were between shows, bookended in this magical world. I never wanted it to end, but I desperately needed to know how it finished.
We queued up early again because Ricky is British and also I wanted to get a copy of the script book at long last (I had held out the day before in the absurd paranoia that I wouldn’t enjoy it).
Then we rushed with childlike excitement to the 4th floor.
“Seats are the same as yesterday,” said the same Ravenclaw. “Don’t put anything…”
…on the ledge, I finished in my head, grinning my overenthusiastic grin at the wonderful, wonderful luck of being here to be warned against putting anything on the ledge at all.
The second act, because I knew what to expect, didn’t awe me as much, but the story pulled me along with a jerk behind the navel as surely as if I’d touched a portkey.
There were less magic tricks in the second half, but the set itself came alive. Installations that seemed stationary began to move; snow fell softly from the ceiling; and the staircases that had previously played only small roles pirouetted across the stage in their own ballet. The time travel was also at its best, and I’m a huge sucker for such things.
We left elated, seemingly hovering a few inches off the ground (had someone slipped us some Fizzing Whizzbees?). It had been one of those experiences that you wish everyone you’d ever known could have been there too so you could share it with them, because it’s impossible to express it through the pale simulacrum of words.
It made perfect sense now why the script wouldn’t do much to draw you in. Half the time, the meaning in the lines only came to life when said in that particular intonation they used. In fact, most of the time the intonation was the only way you could understand what was implied since the words were in deliberate contradiction to the delivery.
How could one capture the whirling of cloaks as two dozen wizards twirled across the stage? Or the impossibility of seeing a witch yell, “Expelliarmus!” and the opponent’s wand appear instantaneously in her hand? (Seriously, it happened three times in a row and each time it was more inconceivable than the last).
In any case, I’ve done my best here, pale simulacrum as it is. Perhaps the “cursed child” ends up being everyone in the theatre who has the burden of never being able to communicate the genius they witnessed.
I couldn’t recommend this enough. If it didn’t take two years advance booking and a plane ticket to the UK, I’d insist you all see it immediately.
That said…still worth considering 😉