31 May 2018, Alex Theatre
A world of wonder and whimsy, where ordinary children are gifted extraordinary powers and sent to a fantastical school where they can master all manner of mystical talents. Yes, the universe of Harry Potter truly is a magical place.
Unless you spend just a few seconds really thinking about it. The kids are armed with powerful weapons when they’re 11. There’s mass slavery, rampant racism, underage drinking and a huge class divide. There’s a disturbingly loosey-goosey attitude to child welfare. And then there’s the aforementioned school. The security guards are soul-sucking demons, there don’t seem to be any background checks on the consistently homicidal teachers, and the building itself is filled to the rafters with a perverse number of ways to mangle and maim the students.
And yet, seven bestsellers, nine international blockbusters, and a record-breaking two-part theatre megahit later, the world of Harry Potter hasn’t lost any of its bewitching charm, despite these problematic niggles. But for those who just can’t shake the shortcomings, unofficial comedy Puffs – an Off-Broadway success making its international debut in Melbourne – takes every plot hole to task with a hilariously enchanting mix of parody and homage.
Taking a whistle-stop tour through the official Potter canon, Puffs (otherwise titled, Seven Increasingly Eventful Years At A Certain School Of Magic And Magic) conjures a fresh story from the margins of the adventures we know and love. If some of the lingo thus far feels a tad off, it’s worth reiterating that Puffs is an unofficial production; much of the usual vernacular is exchanged for a new shorthand that retains just enough of the original to remain familiar without being cursed by copyright lawsuits. But in fact, this cunning presto-chango also adds another endearing level of knowing cheek to the show. And without ever fully mentioning He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Harry Potter) we still experience the richness of these well-known stories, but from a unique perspective: through Puff-tinted glasses.
Following a different class of ’98, the action focuses on the wizarding tweens who weren’t the chosen ones, but rather the biggest losers in the school. As the new intake are sorted into the brave, the smart, the serpentine, and the, well, Puffs, it’s clear the misfits assigned to the dweebiest of the school’s four houses are outliers and oddballs, born and bred; a bit too awkward, a bit too peculiar, but nonetheless kind, hopeful and willing to give things a red hot go, even if most of the time this ends in failure.
Here we meet Wayne (Ryan Hawke). Like the eponymous Mr Potter, he too is an orphan, unaware of his magical birthright. Unlike Mr Potter, however, Wayne is from outback Victoria, and arrives in merry ol’ England even more of an outsider than the average Puff. Unsurprisingly, he forms friendships with two other students on the fringes, Oliver (Keith Brockett), a maths prodigy who sucks at magic, and Megan (Eva Seymour), a snarky goth whose mother was the first Puff to be locked up in Azkaban.
This premise is already primed with comic potential, but the sheer number of gags playwright Matt Cox manages to extract is downright spellbinding. Nods to the various alarming issues found in the Potter-verse intersect with brilliantly observed quirks and quips about the wildly inconsistent film iterations. But there’s also a beautifully unexpected amount of heart in Cox’s play. Cedric (Australian Idol finalist turned musical theatre star Rob Mills), a significant character in just one of Rowling’s original seven novels, is the Huffle-buff dreamboat of the Puffs common room, a dependable big brother type, who inspires his housemates with a twinkle in his eye and spring in his step. In the play’s fourth chapter, “The Year The Puffs Mattered,” the mere knowledge of how that narrative ends creates a simmering level of impending pathos that left this poor scribe wiping away a tear or two.
But Cox’s whip-smart dialogue is only part of the reason why this Australian premiere is a must-see production. The small ensemble cast of Aussie up-and-comers, under the direction of Kristin McCarthy Parker, deliver a performance that finds the nuance and precision to land both the smallest winks and the clowniest gestures with pinpoint accuracy. The show perhaps has the most to offer to those Potter-tragics fully versed in both the books and the films, but that’s not to say that newcomers will be left cold. With megawatt performances as fine as this, Puffs could cast a spell on anyone.
First published 1 June 2018, for Time Out Melbourne.