When “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” premiered on London’s West End in 2016, being the first “Harry Potter” story presented onstage was not its only mark of distinction. Nor were the nine Olivier Awards it won, or the six Tonys that came after its transfer to Broadway.
The play was also a rarity, especially for a theatrical offering pitched specifically to families, because it was performed in two parts, requiring two tickets, with a total running time of more than five hours. Audiences could watch it all in one day — with an hours-long dinner break between shows — or split the story up over consecutive nights. In other words, a major commitment of money and time for parents who brought their kids.
“The production is undeniably long,” wrote Times critic Charles McNulty in 2016, “and there were moments when I wondered if its tremendous scale wasn’t more of a marketing strategy intent on manufacturing a theatrical event than a narrative necessity.”
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It turns out the “Cursed Child” creative team saw his point. During the pandemic, they reunited to cut their behemoth down to one three-and-a-half-hour performance.
“Given the challenges of remounting and running a two-part show on the scale of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ in the U.S. — combined with the commercial challenges faced by the theatre and tourism industries coming out of the pandemic — we decided to move forward with a new version of the play that allows audiences to enjoy the complete ‘Cursed Child’ adventure in one sitting,” producers Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender tell The Times via email. “It was a joyous process of rediscovery and gave us a unique opportunity to look at the play with fresh eyes.”
Now two-thirds the original running time and available at half the cost, the resulting experience is much more accessible for families — and thanks to its prudent trims, the leaner version more effectively celebrates the relationship between parents and children mirrored in its target audience.
Based on an original new story by franchise author J.K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, “Cursed Child” takes place decades after the final “Harry Potter” book and movie. Harry, Ron and Hermione are parents of children as brave and adventurous as they once were. Upon arriving at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry’s son Albus becomes fast friends with archrival Draco Malfoy‘s son, Scorpius; they get their hands on a rare Time-Turner and attempt to correct a dark spot in Harry’s legacy.
Compared to the New York production of 2018, the revised “Cursed Child” currently playing San Francisco’s Curran Theatre is much more focused — an enjoyable single serving of Potter lore. A line-by-line comparison of the two scripts reveals that the onstage adventure has been compressed with care, like a sculptor carefully carving away any excess clay to present a more defined edition of a creation. The dialogue has been trimmed of throwaway jokes, mentions of offstage characters and verbose responses. The lyrical scene transitions, which helped the show nab a Tony nomination for best choreography, have largely disappeared, and some expositional sections are delivered at a pace so frantic that even a devout Potterhead might get confused.
But without so much gratuitous small talk, lackluster punchlines and ineffective jabs, whatever has survived the cut is much more impactful than before. This is especially true of its emotional beats: when Harry has trouble communicating with his son; when Albus scorns the weight of his father’s fame; when Scorpius struggles amid rumors about his parentage. These situations, once diluted by dialogue, have been rewritten into simple, more straightforward sentiments — brief monologues or emphatic one-liners, each given seconds to sink in.
Some scenes have been cut entirely, in particular those built from conversations among the parents about child-rearing and various interpersonal hurdles. Even moments centering Ron and Hermione’s clever daughter, Rose, or Harry and Ginny’s daughter, Lily, have been left on the cutting room floor, and disappointingly so. Still, deleting these — as well as laborious recaps of the action, dream sequences that reenact key moments from the books, and Harry‘s narration thereof — keeps the piece moving and maintains the audience’s focus on the action at hand.
It’s notable that, in a revision in which most scenes have been cut or rewritten, one has been expanded. The shortened version closes with a final conversation between Harry and Albus as they learn to understand who the other person is for the first time. Albus then asks his father a question:
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ALBUS: You do know, right? That Scorpius is the most important person in my life. That he might always be the most important.
He looks at his son. He knows this is important. He smiles. He knows.
HARRY: I know. And I like it. In fact, I really like him. And if he’s the most important person in your life then I’d say that’s a very good thing.
This more explicit acknowledgment of Albus and Scorpius’ gay romance was added after the original version was barbed for framing these characters as “secret lovers with all of the subtext and none of the follow through,” as Logo’s Billy McEntee wrote in 2018 — before a “Fantastic Beasts’’ sequel hinted at Dumbledore’s sexuality. “It’s not that the ‘Harry Potter’ universe needs LGBTQ narratives; they just shouldn’t be alluded to and then unfulfilled.” (If this “Cursed Child” makes a welcome effort to edge closer to that fulfillment, it may yet be cold comfort to patrons fed up with Rowling’s ongoing embrace of transphobic ideas and rhetoric.)
Of course, the biggest selling point of “Cursed Child” is the ability to experience the magic of this beloved wizarding world in person. As such, every onstage illusion remains thrillingly intact. What fun it is for a fan to see the Sorting Hat in action, Polyjuice Potion at play, and James Potter’s invisibility cloak now worn by his grandson. I gasped with delight when a tail-swishing centaur stepped onstage and couldn’t help but scream at the sight of cloaked Dementors flying above my seat. There are enough tricks per hour to keep even a passing “Harry Potter” fan entertained for the duration; if they don’t care much for the narrative implications of a spectacle, they’ll at least be wondering how each one is pulled off.
“Cursed Child” now boasts seven productions in six countries on four continents and claims to “have actors performing live on stage somewhere around the globe continuously over a 24-hour period.” Theaters in London and Hamburg still split the story across two parts; those in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Melbourne and Tokyo offer it as just one.
The play’s success may be a testament, more than anything, to the power of the “Potter” brand — but it’s certainly a bonus that a production primarily overhauled to curb costs and continue on after the shutdowns is also a better piece of theater for it. The revised “Cursed Child” isn’t just a sharper story of parents and children; it’s a sharper story for parents and children, and one that should encourage those behind other established productions to keep coming back to their material with fresh eyes.
'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child'
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ashley Lee is a staff reporter at the Los Angeles Times, where she writes about theater, movies, television and the bustling intersection of the stage and the screen. An alum of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute and Poynter’s Power of Diverse Voices, she leads workshops on arts journalism at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. She was previously a New York-based editor at the Hollywood Reporter and has written for the Washington Post, Backstage and American Theatre, among others. She is currently working remotely alongside her dog, Oliver.