[A brief explanation of spork can be found here. An explanation of Throwback Thursdays is here. Also, obvious spoilers below]
Given that this is Harry Potter, a phenomenon with more love poured into it than almost any other modern literary series—from myself most of all!—I feel the need to preface this review by saying a few things.
1. No, this isn't a recap. Rather this is a pure, responsive critique. You'll need a least a passing familiarity with Cursed Child's characters and plot to follow along.
2. Yes, I read the spoilers for Cursed Child when they first came out and no, I don’t believe it colored my reading too strongly. I have a long history of hearing about “awful” media that I then enjoy for a variety of reasons when I get the chance to see it for myself, so Cursed Child always stood a good chance.
3. Yes, I’m also very aware that this is a play; that a large chunk of the ‘experience’ is lost through reading the action rather than seeing it performed. However,
4. That for me isn’t enough to excuse this story's attempt to situate itself within the Harry Potter universe when it clearly has so little respect for the characters, the text's values, and the overall magic that fans have come to adore. We still have the plot and we still have the dialogue, two of a story's most impactful aspects that, frankly, should have redeemed this piece if there was anything to redeem. There’s a reason we still read plays in high school and college. Hell, there’s a reason I fell in love with Hamilton through the soundtrack alone. When it’s good, it’s good. And when it’s not… well.
But let me start with what I think does work well thus far, namely the new details we get about the Wizarding World. I appreciated right from the start Harry’s advice for getting onto the platform—“best to do it at a run if you’re nervous”—that echoes his first time with Mrs. Weasley and gives us a sense of experiences passed on through generations. I enjoyed Rose’s “Thank Dumbledore” sigh of relief, evidence that Hogwart’s greatest headmaster has become a name to exalt in everyday conversation, a perfect example of how language reflects history and culture. The mentions of werewolves, trolls, and giants are always good for world building (even if we haven’t actually seen any of them yet). I love the nods to Muggle vs. Wizarding differences—“raise a wand” instead of a hand—and even some of the larger ideas, such as a weaponized library. In fact, speaking of Hermione, her reveal as Minister of Magic is probably the only truly good thing I’ve gotten out of this text so far.
Which just leaves everything else.
Honestly, from the moment I read the spoilers and realized (unless they were a truly elaborate hoax) that Voldemort was going to be the main antagonist/conflict for this new piece, I had a strong feeling it wouldn’t end well. Because his story is done. We had seven whole books detailing it. That’s over and we, as a generation, have already worked through that emotional closure. Trying to drag him into the present again, through time shenanigans no less, is not only repetitive but indicative of a lack of creativity. That's a story that fans have already told a thousand times through fanfic----it's a story that was old a decade ago----and frankly, no matter how fantastic the fic, you expect better from the canon. If you can’t take your new generation and give them a new conflict (in a world positively brimming with possibility), then they’re not well-rounded characters yet.
Which brings me to the characterization itself. I obviously give Albus, Scorpius, Rose, and the other kids more of a pass because they’re just being introduced to us, but the original trio? It becomes clear how little control J.K.R. had over this writing because I can’t believe that the woman who gave us such phenomenal characters could screw them up so royally now. (And indeed, J.K.R. proved her continued understanding of character nuance through Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).
Where to begin.
Ginny has gone from one of the most badass characters to a generic mom, mostly reminding her kids not to forget things, telling Lily she can’t wear fairy wings to school (really? The girl who defended Luna is going to deny her kid magically-enhanced wings?) and who apparently doesn’t let Albus have any sweets. Yes, this has been mentioned twice so far and I hope it becomes important somehow because otherwise why is it emphasized?
Rose is fine thus far, except for her blatant prejudice towards Slytherins (more on that below). There’s mention that she and Albus were friends only when they were six, like they suddenly stopped caring about one another for the next four years until Hogwarts. What happened? Nothing that we get to know about. Do kids always have to like each other just because their parents were BFFs? Of course not. Though I do find this all a little weird when the trio must obviously spend a lot of time together, giving their kids time to develop incredibly close relationships. But no. That’s not shown here.
Then there’s Amos who has no logical motivation driving his actions. He accosts Harry about Cedric—“There’s plenty you’re responsible for”—when in Goblet of Fire we instead get, “They did not blame him [Harry] for what had happened; on the contrary, both thanked him for returning Cedric’s body to them,” but now Amos is so fueled by rage and grief that he demands Harry use a Time Turner? To change all of history? What, he just turned into a crazed, bitter old man in the last 20 years? Okay fine… I suppose knowing Delphi’s place in the plot that I’m waiting for the, “She had him under Imperius the whole time!” reveal, but given the rest of this characterization I’m not holding my breath.
Ron is summed up with the phrase, “Ron’s Ron,” except apparently now he’s trying to replace Fred because he’s not only helping with the joke shop but is solely defined by his antics. He makes lame jokes at the station. He buys the kids nothing but joke products. He’s now such a comic character that when Albus impersonates him it's with, "Let's have another baby... Or if not another baby, a holiday. I want a baby or a holiday and I'm going to insist on it!" And no one bats an eye. The depressive episodes, the loyalty, the tendency towards jealousy, the subtle compassionate moments, the wicked strategic intelligence… we don’t get any of that Ron here. At least not yet.
And then there’s Harry. Harry who, as fans have been discussing since the spoilers first dropped, is defined largely by his cry of, “There are times I wish you weren’t my son!” to Albus. I 100% buy a teenage Harry screaming something awful like this at his friends in the middle of a war… I have a harder time buying into a nearly 40-year old Harry telling his son he doesn’t want him. Because Harry prizes family so much. Does that make him incapable of saying something hurtful? Of course not. But there’s no basis for it. Why does Harry snap and say he doesn’t want Albus? Because he’s being moody? Like Amos, his motivations are tenuous at best. This is also apparently a Harry who now says only, “I sympathize with your efforts to memorialize Cedric,” like the kid who desperately tried to throw the Tri-Wizard Tournament winnings at Cedric’s parents wouldn’t be doing everything within his power to get a memorial up, not just "sympathizing." A Harry who has not only reverted in his most basic characteristics, but lacks any of the growth he achieved in books 5-7. When his scar hurts for the first time in twenty years Harry tries to get out of telling Ginny, changing the subject back to their son. Just think about that for a second. This is Ginny. His wife. A woman who Harry adores and trusts just as much as Ron and Hermione. In turn this is a man who spent years learning how to work with those he considers to be family----that's at the heart of the series' whole conflict. And, you know, he's had two more decades of adulthood to teach him basic skills like ‘when your link to the worst Dark Lord in the history of Ever comes back on line you tell someone about it IMMEDIATELY.’ But no. Apparently Harry is 13 again. He’s got about as much forethought as his teenage son.
Which brings me to Albus himself. What even is going on here? He heads off to his first year terrified that he’s going to be in Slytherin and despite Harry’s quick pep-talk about how that would be fine, I can’t accept this terror in the first place. Where did this come from? Sure, the Wizarding world in general remains terribly prejudiced, but if you’re telling me that the child of Harry Potter—Harry who overcame many of his own prejudices, accepted Draco’s growth, came to respect Severus Snape so much that he named his kid after him (a decision I still do not accept), and who was originally going to be in Slytherin himself—that this guy along with Ginny, Hermione, and Ron wouldn’t have instilled an absolute acceptance of the house in Albus long before Hogwarts… I don’t buy it. This horror just comes out of nowhere. Or rather, it reads like someone who has a passing familiarity with what Harry Potter supposedly is, rather than having actually read the books.
So that seems to be the drama that drives Albus’ moods, his fear of being labeled as "evil"… except that all of the sudden his fear changes to being Harry Potter’s son. But we don’t see this. I get that there isn’t nearly as much time in a play as you're afforded in a novel, but if your protagonist’s entire drive stems from this feeling of inferiority you’ve got to show us that. Where is the scene where Albus tries (and fails) to emulate his father? Or where he sees a book, a statue, some cultural artifact worshiping Harry and worries that he'll never measure up? You don’t jump ahead whole months in the span of a few pages. We see Albus unable to call up a broom (apparently that’s all we get? He’s not an insanely natural flyer like his dad?) and then immediately it’s a year later. We’re supposed to believe that Albus is in the exact same emotional place as his first day after a whole year at Hogwarts?
The original Harry Potter books were all about an extraordinary boy who was dying to be normal. Now we’ve got a normal boy craving to be extraordinary. And that could work! Tales of children trying to live up to their parents can be incredibly powerful, but we need to actually get that story. Not Ginny simply announcing that “Albus is different” (which means…what exactly?). Not this back and forth between Rose saying ‘Your dad is so famous! Everyone will want to be your friend!’ and ‘Oh no wait. Being Harry Potter’s son is the worst ever, actually. Except for your brother James. He doesn’t seem to be suffering from any of these crippling comparisons that we as the audience also don’t see, but that apparently fuel your entire character…’
Right. Characterization is a mess. Enough said.
But there’s also the plot.
I honestly don’t even know what to do with this. Let’s move back to bullet points for a moment:
Scorpius as Voldemort’s potential son is also a huge mistake. Anyone as Voldemort’s potential child is a cringe-worthy plot (and yes, I know how the story ends, yikes). I simply can’t read any of this with a straight face, and that doesn’t even get into Voldemort’s own characterization, whether a man so obsessed with himself could even consider fathering an heir.
Harry giving his blanket to Albus could have been moving and touching moment if we’d seen this article before. Or even heard about it. But it comes out of nowhere, putting us in Albus’ position of, “What is this? Where did it come from? Why do I care about it?” Out of all the things Harry could have gifted to his son, this random blanket is not something that connects with the audience.
With all these other places that need fleshing out, I ~love~ the scene that’s an exact copy of Hagrid retrieving Harry in Sorcerer's Stone, but with an added Voldemort voice at the very end. Rehashing the original plot even more is completely necessary.
There are numerous plot holes. How did Delphi get up the steps without Albus ever noticing? How does Albus know where the Old Witches and Wizards Home is when he was seemingly confused about it before (and only decided on this trip when he heard that a Time Turner still existed)? The Trolley Witch (who is apparently now evil?) boasts that no one has ever escaped from the train, not even the Marauders! But all it takes is, apparently, just... jumping off? Yes, they need to escape for plot, but maybe make it a little harder? Make the escape creative and persuasively impressive, especially with magic at your disposal. We need something there that helps us believe even for a second that the Trolley Witch is as powerful as she now claims she is. Their easy escape puts a real damper on this sudden bomb-sweets business.
The dialogue—where we get all characterization from and 99% of the plot—is awful. Really, cringe-worthy awful. I particularly love Scorpius, who moves from so bumbling he greets himself (“Hi Scorpius”) to incredibly articulate for an 11-year old (“I’ve always regarded the Popper Imp as the king of the confectionary bag”). His other ridiculous lines like “Yah-huh” and “Hogwarts ahoy!” really make for stellar reading.
Right. I’ll end this section of the review with a few of my favorite lines. And by “favorite” I mean "????”. We've got:
Albus described as “He’s still an attractive boy, but he’s trying not to admit it.” (So now being handsome is part of his angst?)
“They rattle and chatter like all true witches and wizards can.” (What… what does that mean? Do Muggles not chat?)
“Male nurses are made to dance the tango.” (Okay then.)
“Harry… makes brave eye contact with Draco.” (Yes. I’m sure after everything he’s been through meeting Draco’s eyes is absolutely terrifying.)
“There’s real emotion in this room.” (Is there? Is there really?)
“We beat it. We beat the library.”
I can’t. I’m laughing too hard. And please don’t get me wrong, if you’re enjoying Cursed Child I am so happy for you, absolutely ecstatic, because everyone should enjoy as much Harry Potter in their lives as possible. I just wish I could join you. But since I can’t you’ll have to indulge me in these critiques—they’re the most fun I’m having with this text so far.
Until part two <3
Cursed Child Cast: http://ew.com/theater/2017/08/02/harry-potter-cursed-child-broadway-cast/