Hedwig and the Angry Trainer


I was vaguely aware that JK Rowling had co-written a new play about the adult Harry Potter but its name escaped me.

Was it Harry Potter and the Accountant’s Recommendation To Diversify Into a Third Popular Medium? Harry Potter and the Sudden Whim to Generate Some Quick Dosh to Buy a Caribbean Island? No, those didn’t seem right.

And then I started seeing news reports about owls on London’s West End, and it all came rushing back like a jolt of expository back-story dissolved in one of Professor Snape’s flashback tears.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, currently enjoying a rapturous response to its first previews, finds the Chosen One all grown up and working for the Ministry of Magic. I assume it explains why he’s a civil servant, because the last time I checked he was the most powerful person on the planet so you’d think he could charge a few bob for speaking engagements, maybe the odd corporate gig where he describes evaporating Voldemort and then segues clumsily into a metaphor about the importance of having a clear business model, writing VOLDEMORT on a whiteboard while explaining that “V is for Vision, O is for Opportunity, L is for Long-Term…”

While Harry wrestles with the difficult questions of adult life, like why he still hasn’t got contact lenses, his son, Albus, is fighting his own battles, mostly with a giant bird’s nest if the play’s publicity shots are any indication.

According to the production’s website, the magical spawn “must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted”. I hope this means there is a scene in which young Albus throws his diamond champagne flute at the wall and screams, “I didn’t ask to be born into a franchise! It’s so unfair!”, before running up the marble staircase and slamming his door shut using the Petulento Puberto curse.

The website goes on to reveal that, “as past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.” In theatrical previews, unexpected darkness usually comes from the lighting rig where past, present and a lighting technician have fused ominously to a live wire. But so far, the only apparent hiccup in Cursed Child has been the owls.

“Hey your hot wanna sext?”

Owls, you will remember, are the e-mails of the Potter universe. Rowling never told us whether there are also spam owls – scruffy little things carrying bits of parchment reading “Hello my dearest friend in Christ, how are you I need your help” – but I assume they exist. Alas, Harry’s owl, Hedwig, was killed by Voldemort, so these days Harry has to rely on Twitter’s direct messaging: a starling that arrives at all hours with notes reading, “Hey your hot wanna sext?”

Modern theatre has some ingenious ways of portraying animals on stage – War Horse featured beautiful wooden horses to complement its wooden script – but in a brave lunge at realism the producers of Cursed Child decided to use live owls.

A few years ago I found myself hammering out an obscenity-laced e-mail to a colleague of mine in which I was heaping vitriol on a third party we both detested. I added one final unforgivable curse and hit SEND…only to get a terse message back from the third party in question. I had sent him the e-mail by accident.

Which is why I could have warned the producers before their opening night: e-mails have a nasty habit of flying to the wrong person. Because, of course, that’s what happened. The owls flitted off into the dark theatre and refused to return to their handlers.

The show has subsequently fired the owls, a move praised by animal rights groups, and will likely go the War Horse route. But I must confess that I feel for the trainers.

If your dream is to be a trainer of owls it means you’ve chosen quite a hard road through life. Sure, you probably get courted by a lot of mouse breeders, and you do the odd Medieval faire, but I can’t imagine that owl-wrangling is lousy with job opportunities. To be cast in a Harry Potter play – to finally crack the Hoo’s Hoo of the avian acting industry – would be the fulfilment of an impossible dream. And to see that dream gliding away from you and settling up in the cheap seats – well, that’s enough to make you cry like a freshly snakebit Snape.

It must have been an awkward ride home. “They wanted Merlin from Owls-R-Us. But I fought for you. Merlin can turn his head 420 degrees and regurgitate on demand but I told them you were an artist, and this is how you repay me? Don’t turn your head away from me when I’m – oh, right, it’s come all the way around. Sorry.”

The cursed child, indeed.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail


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