‘Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic’ is a delight for young and old alike – as long as they’re old enough for a couple of swear words – and will bring back the magic of The Boy Who Lived, even if it’s buried deep in your heart.
The magic – ha ha – of Puffs is that it’s Potter-adjacent, not Potter-themed. Yes, there are four houses, consisting of those that are brave, those that are smart, those that are brave, and smart, and BETTER, and the Puffs, commonly considered to be ‘the rest’. And there are decorations around the theatre advertising various in-school events like the Frog Choir, while some elements of the Alex Theatre are simply labelled ‘wizard’, like the wizard fire extinguisher, and the wizard thermostat. However the show itself is not focused on Potter’s antics, more so the drama that seems to follow the Boy Who Lived around Hogwarts.
Puffs are the butt of every joke, they’re not very good at magic, nor are they very good at interacting with other people, or even really just handling themselves in a situation anything other than calm and normal. Leanne (Tammy Weller), for example, is one of the quintessential Puffs; she’s airheaded, manic, and manages to misunderstand anything and everything due to her crippling naïveté.
The show focuses around the golden trio (no, not that golden trio) of Wayne (Ryan Hawke, the world’s most balding eleven year old), Megan (Eva Seymour, a Goth kid who tries her best to grow up to be like her Death Eater mum and avoid her Puff family heritage), and Oliver (Keith Brockett, a young man who succeeds only in Mug Born studies and not so much magic). Brockett and Hawke are extremely likeable and really grow with their characters as the show progresses. Seymour is perhaps a little weaker performance-wise, but plays off her co-stars wonderfully and the three are extremely reminiscent of their Potter counterparts.
Most other members of the cast play multiple characters, bouncing between teachers and students only with their movements and, occasionally, a LED-filled ruffled collar, if they happen to be ghosts. Olivia Charalambous most frequently takes on the mantle of Potter himself (herself?) and her performance of the Boy Who Lived – along with his friends, Ron and Hermione the wigs-on-broomsticks – while Annabelle Tudor and Matt Whitty are often teachers, switching in one scene almost instantaneously from upright staff to extremely bored students.
Hidden a little deeper beneath the well-known characters – Cedric, Harry, Dumbledore, McGonagall, etc. – are the slightly lesser-known Ernie Macmillan (Whitty) and Justin Finch-Fletchley (Daniel Cosgrove) and it’s a delight to watch their stories grow beyond the mere moments the audience would have had with them in the books. Rounding out the cast are Zenya Carmellotti, who was wonderful as the sweet-hearted Sally, and Gareth Isaac, the mysterious and charismatic narrator bringing the entire show together. And don’t worry, nineteen years later there is an explanation for his omniscience.
The end of the show is bittersweet – in fact everything from intermission onwards ranges from agonisingly bitter to saccharine sweet in insane swings. As all Potter alumni will know, Cedric Diggory (Rob Mills) is one of the few focal Puffs in the books and films, and he is killed tragically at the end of book four, an event that coincides with the return of “What’s His Name That We Try Not To Say”. Despite knowing this is coming, the cast manage to ensure that every audience member is heartbroken upon hearing of Cedric’s death, in part due to Mills’ charming performance, and in part because all the Puffs have grown to love each other so dearly during their four years together – yes, even the weird ones.
Books five, six, and seven are fairly dark, and the tone of the play shifts dramatically. There’s still humour, aptly delivered by all onstage, but the loss of Cedric plays heavy on the hearts of all the Puffs, and the continuing off-screen adventures of Potter and co. lead to darker happenings at the school and in the wizarding world itself.
There are deaths, no spoilers about whom, but they happen in the same way as the books, quickly and efficiently, and with no ceremony. Rowling captured the essence of war in book seven, in that death comes for everyone and is rarely fair or dramatic, just something that happens. Puffs playwright Matt Cox captures Rowling’s sense of doom perfectly, telling us the story of the lesser-known students caught up in the Battle of Hogwarts, who may not have had screen time because we were too busy following Potter around.
It’s a heart-rending part of the show that makes the final moral all the sweeter: that Puffs are meaningful, and useful, and deserving of love – being a Puff isn’t shameful, it’s something to be cherished. As Helga Hufflepuff (Weller) states, in a dreamlike fashion halfway through the final act, “why be one thing when you can be everything else?”.
Along with Cox, the rest of the backstage Puffs – ‘creatives’, as they’re titled in the program – should be proud for putting together an amazing show. The book three dementors are brought to life in a terrifying way due to Madeleine Bundy’s props and costuming, Brian Hoes’ skilful score composition, and Herrick Goldman’s lighting design, aptly produced for the original New York production. Additionally, the performances in Puffs could not be as crisp and quick-witted as they are without director Kristin McCarthy Parker.
Just like the students and creatives themselves, Puffs is not one-note. It is a rainbow of wonderful characterisation and delightful antics, with just enough hints of sadness and angst to keep it grounded. Sure, one character turns out to be a ‘mathemagician’, but Potter’s kid was named Albus Severus, so who really wins that battle for Most Ridiculous Name?
Images: Ben Fon