Believe it or not, this review contains few true “spoilers.” I do provide many details from the play, and if you’re a purist who doesn’t want to know ANYTHING about the play before you read it, you should stay away from this post. However, I never actually reveal how the play ends.
I’ve already mentioned that this book got me through a night when I was up with an upset stomach, and I didn’t mean that to be as dismissive as it perhaps seems. This book is an enjoyable enough read, and because I did not need to get used to new characters and a new fictional world, I moved through it at a good clip. This book is perfect for a flight from, say, Chicago to New York.
As I assume most of the literate world knows by now, this play begins with the scene that ends Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – the one in which Harry gives his son, Albus Severus, a talking-to about the Sorting Hat just before young Albus boards the Hogwarts Express. In this play, that pep talk does not achieve its intended purpose. Albus departs for Hogwarts feeling unloved by his father (who in a flashback makes the significant oopsie of telling Albus that he wishes Albus were more like his siblings) and impossibly isolated from his peers. He is sorted into Slytherin, to his horror, and his only friend there is young Scorpius Malfoy, who is studious and gentle, sort of the Hermione Granger of his generation. Several years pass, via some fancy lighting and special effects, and Albus and Scorpius are in their third or fourth year at Hogwarts and at the height of their adolescent angst. On the Hogwarts Express, Albus tells Scorpius that he overheard his father talking to Amos Diggory, who is old and senile and now devotes his life to pleading with people to go back in time and stop Cedric from dying in the Triwizard Tournament. Time turners like the one Hermione uses in Prisoner of Azkaban are illegal in this play – yet of course Hermione, who is now Minister of Magic, happens to have one. Albus and Scorpius escape from the Hogwarts Express and use Polyjuice Potion – which just sort of appears in their hands when they need it – to break into Hermione’s office and steal the time turner. With the help of an individual named Delphi – who is supposedly Amos Diggory’s niece but turns out to be someone quite different – Albus and Scorpius travel back in time to intervene in the Triwizard Tournament in hopes of saving Cedric.
Up until this point I enjoyed the play well enough. A certain J.K. Rowling je ne sais quoi was missing, but overall I was happy to be along for the ride. I wasn’t expecting TIME TRAVEL in this play, and unexpected TIME TRAVEL is often the best kind. But after the boys’ first foray into the past at the end of Act I, the plot of this play devolves into a Back to the Future-inspired shit show. This first go-round, the non-death of Cedric does little more than rewire the marriages and careers of the key players. No longer Minister of Magic, Hermione is now a nasty, sarcastic professor at Hogwarts. Ron is married to Padma instead of to Hermione, and Albus’ cousins Hugo and Rose do not exist. Albus is in Gryffindor instead of Slytherin. Harry, who uses the Marauder’s Map to facilitate his helicopter parenting (and, admit it, that’s kind of hilarious), notices that Albus and Scorpius are often seen together. These are the alternate-reality Albus and Scorpius, who are plotting round two of their TIME TRAVEL adventure, but Harry doesn’t know that. He teams up with Draco Malfoy to barge in on Professor McGonagall and demand that their sons not be allowed to spend time together.
This is where the plot begins to unravel. A second trip to the past resurrects Voldemort, and Scorpius is elevated to a high position (that he doesn’t want) because of his heritage, and they begin hearing references to someone called the Auguery, who works closely with Voldemort. At some point, Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione, and Draco figure out that their kids are time traveling and do a variety of ridiculous things to get them back. No one seems able to apparate, resulting in a lot of messy floo powder nonsense. Draco and Harry have a wand fight in the kitchen. Cedric Diggory, who was portrayed as relatively ordinary in the novels, talks like something out of an Arthurian romance (“Are you also a task? An obstacle? Speak! Do I have to defeat you too?). The Hogwarts staircases move around practically nonstop. Harry’s scar starts to hurt again. At one point Voldemort starts speaking, though nowhere – NOWHERE – did the stage directions say “Enter Voldemort.” Ron tells Hermione – while eating oatmeal – that he wants to renew their marriage vows. Harry yells cathartically at a portrait of Dumbledore in what appears to be a deleted scene from Ordinary People. A blankie is vandalized. Revelations include the fact that Voldemort did the nasty with Bellatrix Lestrange, that Godric’s Hollow is now a suburban shopping district, and that Moaning Myrtle’s full name is “Myrtle Elizabeth Warren.” And then everyone almost has sex with their own parents at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, and the next thing you know Biff is washing Marty McFly’s father’s car in an abominable velour track suit.
I don’t know what to make of all this nonsense. Imagine being J.K. Rowling, in possession of one of the most valuable pieces of intellectual property of all time, still in her prime as a writer, knowing she can write her name on just about anything and be guaranteed an immediate worldwide audience. And then imagine her doing this. I know she didn’t write it, but her name is on the cover in large, bold type – it’s clear she has no wish to disown this confusing oddity. Who is “Jack Thorne,” anyway, and what is this weird power he holds over this beloved author? Was the Imperius curse involved?
It did occur to me that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child might be meant as satire. Rowling is playful and gutsy enough to put her name on a satire, I think – but with occasional exceptions, I just don’t see the intelligence I expect in satire. Good satires can usually be identified by their endings, and the ending of this play is pure schmaltz, straight out of a circa-1985 Afterschool Special. This play is like a mudpie or a too-wet sandcastle – devoid of form and structure. It’s as if Thorne took the huge Breughel painting that is the Harry Potter series, mixed up all the component parts, and then cranked out a Jackson Pollock. I can’t imagine that this play will be well received in theatres, though of course tickets will sell out. It’s also hard to imagine the play’s intended audience. It’s certainly not for children, who might enjoy the over-the-top pyrotechnics of the special effects but would likely be mystified by the plot line, and I also don’t see the crossover appeal to adults that the series is famous for. There is no doubt that Rowling will bounce back from this odd moment in literary history, and I’ll always look forward to reading her work. I might stay away from Jack Thorne’s canon, though.