Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has an impossible task.
A continuation of J.K. Rowling’s best-selling seven-volume saga about a boy wizard, Cursed Child doesn’t even have the luxury of being a full book, let alone a 700-page doorstopper like the later volumes in the series.
No, Cursed Child is a play, written by Rowling in collaboration with John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, currently onstage in London. On this side of the Atlantic, it’s available only as a scriptbook. So Cursed Child is not only tasked with living up to the nostalgic memories and fondest wizarding dreams of a generation who grew up immersed in all things Harry — in the US, it also has to do so outside of its native medium, without the benefits of actors and sets and what is by all accounts some truly remarkable stagecraft.
Thank goodness, then, that Cursed Child is such a treat, even in script form. Warm, witty, and wildly inventive, it might not quite live up to everything its readers are asking of it, but it comes closer than any of us have any right to expect.
If you want to stay completely unspoiled, stop reading now.
Harry Potter is terrible at naming children
The play picks up at the books’ much-maligned epilogue, with Harry’s unfortunately named son, Albus Severus, fretting that he might be sorted into Slytherin, the House of cunning and ambition. In the book, it’s a moment of sweet bonding between father and son, with Harry assuring Albus that he’ll love him no matter what house he’s in. And Harry’s casual acceptance of the idea of a Slytherin son gestures towards the dismantling of the system of strict House rivalry that dominated so much of Harry’s time at Hogwarts.
But in the play, Albus and Harry aren’t close. They have no idea how to talk to one another.
Things only get worse when Albus is sorted into Slytherin, just as he’d feared. And the rest of the school quickly turns against him. Albus’s only friend is the son of his father’s old school rival, Scorpius Malfoy. (You have to assume they bonded over how much their fathers had screwed them both over in the name department.)
Moody and morose, Albus is only a shade or two away from this year’s other pop culture son resentful of a famous father, Kylo Ren. ("I didn’t choose to be his son," he says furiously at one point.) But Albus is more likable, if only just. What saves him is his friendship with Scorpius — cheerfully nerdy, awkward, and wildly charming Scorpius, who is hands down the greatest invention of Cursed Child. You like Scorpius so much that when he says Albus is worth liking, you believe him.
Together, Albus and Scorpius embark on a quest across time in an attempt to save poor tragic Cedric Diggory, whose death at the end of the fourth book signaled the beginning of the series’ dark and gritty phase. But of course, every time they change the timeline, they mess up their own present.
And so the two boys dip in and out of the timeline, creating universe after universe. Of course they end up making one where Voldemort rules all of Britain, but that’s not nearly as dark and heart-breaking as the one where Ron and Hermione barely speak to one another.
Cursed Child plays with the tropes of crackfic
"Huh," you are saying right now if you are the kind of person who reads Harry Potter fanfiction. "I’ve definitely read that fic."
It’s true that the play draws on some of the tropes that are ubiquitous in some of the wackier corners of fandom. There’s a definite whiff of crackfic to the very idea of Harry Potter’s son time-traveling into Harry Potter’s past — and the grand reveal of the villain draws on an idea more than one fic-writer has had.
But Cursed Child navigates this road effortlessly. It certainly takes a great deal of pleasure in using time travel tropes to revisit some of the series’ greatest hits — even reading, you can practically hear the audience applaud when Snape makes his grand surprise entrance — but the time travel isn’t just a cheap trick. It has enormous emotional and thematic resonance.
The Harry Potter books have always been about the way adults project the mistakes and heartbreaks of their past onto the children of the present. Harry’s tragedy, ultimately, is that the adults in his life see him as a tool they can use to correct the mistakes they made as children.
For Sirius, Harry is his father come back to life, someone that Sirius can have adventures with and reclaim the youth he lost to Azkaban. For Snape, Harry is both his father and his mother: He’s a receptacle for all the years of pent-up resentment and hatred and rage Snape felt toward James, and also a sacred object, innocent and pure and perfect, for Snape to protect as he failed to protect Lily. And for Dumbledore, Harry is a representation of young Dumbledore himself — but Dumbledore was corrupted by darkness in his youth, so he pushes Harry endlessly to make sure he won’t fall prey to the same mistakes.
In Cursed Child, Harry and his generation have become the adults projecting their past mistakes onto their children. And so when Albus and Scorpius go back in time to their parents’ youth, they’re only doing what the adults in their lives subtextually asked them to do.
Cursed Child is an opportunity for catharsis
Cursed Child is not a perfect play, at least not on the page. It’s shaggy and doesn’t need to be as long as it is, and the grand reveal of the villain doesn’t have anywhere near the style and shock as those set pieces did in the books.
But who cares if it’s not perfect? It’s so much fun. It’s so much fun to see Harry again, now slightly more world-weary but just as awkwardly heroic as ever. It’s so much fun to see Hermione, ruling the world as Minister of Magic like we always knew that bad bitch would, and Ron, making a non-stop stream of dad jokes because of course he is. It’s so much fun to meet poor morose Albus and lovable, charming Scorpius.
And it’s enormously cathartic when these characters, who we watched go through so much pain and suffering, begin to find ways to break the cycle in which they have been trapped. By the end of the play, Harry and his generation are beginning to figure out how to stop inflicting the wounds of the past on their children, and it’s a moment of profound hope and optimism.
Cursed Child has an impossible task. It doesn’t quite succeed. But damned if it doesn’t have fun trying.