Anything that spawns a generation of obsessive fans is nowadays likely to spawn a slew of parodies to boot. From the Twilight-inspired Vampires Suck to Charlie Ross’ one-man Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, we are rapidly approaching the point where a successful franchise and a nearly-as-successful unauthorised parody go hand in hand. The emerging victor for the wildly successful Harry Potter film and book series is Potted Potter, opening in Melbourne this week.
The benchmark for these sorts of shows is high, and was arguably set by the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s brilliant The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Its landmark London season ran for nine years and it’s regarded as a comedy classic in its own right, winning over Shakespeare fans and Bard novices alike. Potted Potter isn’t really in the same league, mainly thanks to what feels like a lack of connection between the comedy and JK Rowling’s original texts.
That’s not to say the production is truly bad — no matter how popular your source material, you won’t sell out houses on name recognition alone. Potted Potter has its charms, not least the two immensely likeable performers, Gary Trainor (as Harry Potter) and Jesse Briton (as everyone else). (The creators and original performers, British comedy all-rounders Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner, have long since passed the baton.) It also has plenty of laughs for the under-12 set, who made up a considerable proportion of the Melbourne opening night audience. For the adults, however, there’s less. Far less.
The problem with Potted Potter is that it opts for broad, bland comedy instead of truly taking the mickey out of Rowling’s writing. For the first hour of the 70-minute production, it doesn’t really seem as though Clarkson and Turner ever felt particularly inspired by the books they’re parodying. It’s all very well to play Hermione with a deep voice or portray Ron as an Ali G-style hoodlum, but such gags are cheap and obvious — they don’t say anything about the actual characters. It’s a missed opportunity, as Harry Potter, for all its charms, was a mire of inconsistencies and plotholes. Surely more could have been made of the actual books, rather than relying on Comedy 101 tropes.
The missteps continue. Audience participation occurs in the form of a “Quidditch match”, and while nobody in their right mind could expect realism in such a situation, it seems a bit unfortunate that the Potted Potter version gets the basic rules of the game wrong — a bit of a faux pas when playing to such ardent fans. (Even children in the audience could be overheard pointing out Quidditch isn’t played in quarters.)
Throughout all this, Trainor and Briton are chipper and engaging, and their skilled performances keep the rest of the show ticking along. They finally get to shine in the last 10 minutes when Trainor delivers an inspired speech about Harry as a character, before closing the show with a disco duet between Harry and his nemesis Lord Voldemort.
Potted Potter was a delight for most of the children in the audience, but it will leave most of the grown-ups and true Harry Potter aficionados feeling a bit bored. It needn’t be that way — one of the other cultural institutions mentioned in the show, Shrek, proved how possible it is to create entertainment that works for kids and parents. With fewer obvious gags and more genuine Potter parody, it would be a better production.
As it stands it’s a little less wizard and a little more Squib.
The details: Potted Potter plays the Comedy Theatre until October 21. Tickets via Ticketmaster. The show plays Auckland, Wellington, Brisbane and Adelaide throughout October and November — full details on the production website.