Is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child an essential part of the series? A long (two-part) play that premiered on 30th July 2016, it’s written by Jack Thorne, but based on a story by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. I think they were trying to fulfil a number of expectations. First of all, it had to be a night out for Harry Potter fans, a sort of theatrical Harry Potter experience, offering up all your favourite characters, places, and even key scenes from the novels. Secondly, it would have to let us know a little of what happened next with the main characters. Thirdly, it would have to give us a new story that felt, somehow, equal in weight to the seven book series that spawned it, yet could be contained within a pair of plays watchable in a single day.
And I think if you view it this way, they did a pretty good job considering the heavy constraints. By a combination of dreams, talking portraits, time-travel (the plot revolves around the misuse of a time-turner, though one that’s far more powerful than the one Hermione used to attend so many lessons in The Prisoner of Azkaban) leading to alternate timelines, the play gives us scenes from the life of both the grown-up Harry Potter (its first scene is a restaging of the last chapter in Deathly Hallows) and the child Harry Potter, plus appearances from Dumbledore, Voldemort, Hagrid, Harry’s parents, Harry’s children, Severus Snape, Ron and Hermione and their children.
The main story is centred on Harry’s youngest son, Albus. As we meet him he’s weighed under by the pressure of having such a famous father — who defeated Voldemort and saved the wizarding world, no less — which results in his own attempts at magic being rather feeble. In addition, the first and only friend he makes on the train to Hogwarts is Scorpius Malfoy, son of his father’s schoolboy enemy Draco, and Scorpius is under his own sort of cloud, as rumours have begun to circulate he isn’t Draco’s, but Voldemort’s son. Albus finds himself sorted into Slytherin, and feels both the burden of letting his father down, and the rebelliousness of breaking free from his father’s past. Then, overhearing Amos Diggory’s plea to Harry one night to use a time-turner the Ministry has recently recovered (all the others were destroyed in Order of the Phoenix) to save the life of his son Cedric, Albus (encouraged by Amos’s niece Delphine) decides to steal it and, with Scorpius’s help, do what his father is refusing to do: go back in time to the Triwizard Tournament and save Amos’s boy. Things, of course, go wrong, and the pair find themselves caught in a number of alternate timelines, in one of which Voldemort has won.
There’s a thematic link with the novels. In the books, there was a lot about how memories and stories of the past can be changed or misrepresented, and the effect that can have on enabling evil on its way to power. Here, we get the past being actually changed, with often disastrous consequences (including the full-on victory of evil). But also we get the way children can struggle to be perceived as individuals thanks to their parents’ overshadowing reputations. And that’s the main thing this play is about, the relationship between children and parents, which is something the books (that so much focused on orphans like Harry and Tom Riddle, people who disowned their families like Sirius Black, or people like Hermione whose parents we never got to see) couldn’t deal with in the same way. Harry’s difficulties with his son he puts down to the fact of his having had no father present in his life, so he doesn’t know how to deal with his son on an emotional level.
Reading the play (I haven’t seen it), I did find some of the dialogue a lot more emotionally self-analytical than the books, as the characters diagnosed their relationship difficulties with one another in a way that smacked a little bit too much of self-help speak.
But, the main thing the play is designed for is to be fun. And another thing that reading it rather than seeing it did is to make me wonder how they managed it on stage. The scenes are often very short — more filmic than theatrical, I thought — and jump between locations and times in a way that must be pretty challenging for a theatre’s technical crew. And there’s a lot of magic: transformations, levitations, disarming and binding spells, and so on, which I can only guess must be a large part of the fun of going to see this play, to find out how they put these things on live.
Inevitably, fans have argued about whether Cursed Child is “canon” or not. The way it threatens to fiddle with major events in the book-series’ past (which the possibility of time-travel of course raises) does, perhaps, make it feel as though it’s treading on the series’ past a little too much. (Leading to the inevitable scene where some characters have an opportunity to prevent the terrible events that sparked it all off, and the writers have to give them a reason not to do it.) And the grown-up versions of the main characters can only, really, act as jokey versions of the children we got to know thanks to the books. (This may be true of adults generally, though.)
Overall, I think it’s best to see Cursed Child as a bit of fun added to the series, a sort of theatrical “Harry Potter’s Greatest Hits”, with some what-happened-next thrown in, rather than an essential continuation. Personally, I’d be happy to see a more comedic take on the day-to-day lives of adult Harry, Ron, and Hermione, without their having to save the world from ultimate evil, but I can’t imagine that happening — not for a while, anyway.