To simply call Puffs a parody of the events that go on in the Harry Potter timeline would serve the show an outrageous injustice.
Puffs is an all-encapsulating, high energy, hilarious romp through not only the chronological events of the seven novels and eight movies, but the fandom itself and all that has become of it. The show is definitely targeted at those familiar with the Harry Potter universe, as the events closely follow that of the books, and it’s assumed the audience will be able to fill in the gaps. That being said, there is enough physical comedy and gags throughout the show that had even the Potter virgins in hysterics. Given the run has been extended by three weeks, there surely won’t be a shortage of Potterphiles heading to The Alex Theatre to get their latest magic fix.
Following another prodigal orphan, Wayne (Ryan Hawke) as he is accepted into ‘a certain school of magic and magic’ the same year as Harry, we travel through the novels through the eyes of the underdogs, The Puffs, which we know is a play on the Hufflepuff house. Puffs pokes fun at how dangerous a place this school actually is for teenagers, which is a major theme of the show as we watch the ensemble fumble through the space trying to stay safe and forever questioning their ability to fight. The set design is rather simple, but the scenic artistry is quite extravagant, even if it is in the vein of a parody. The auditorium and foyer are also themed with the show as an extension of this design, playing on how theatres are transformed for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The lighting design is, at times, as fast paced as the action, but with spells flying everywhere and large puppet monsters appearing in different crevices, it all works to give the show just the right amount of magic it needs to complement the story.
Ryan Hawke shone as our hero of the piece, who couldn’t be further from his rival, Harry. His desperation to be recognised as a worthy wiz kid was adorable to watch and Hawke lead the story formidably and hilariously. In this version of the play, Wayne came from country Victoria, which really grounded him with the audience, which I thought was a nice touch. He was joined by Keith Brockett as Oliver, a ‘mug born’ with an obsession with maths, and Eva Seymour as Megan, a wildly misunderstood daughter of one of the Dark Lord’s followers, to make up their own trio of misfits to parallel Harry’s. Seymour played the transition from sullen and moody to a fierce heroine with ease, while Brockett’s frustration with not being able to study what he wanted was a favourite of the many ongoing gags.
Outside of the trio, the cast played a variety of roles. Guiding us through the show as the Narrator was Gareth Isaac, who was enjoyable every time he came onstage. Isaac understood his purpose and grounded the piece as he introduced each of the seven instalments. He also gave us the opportunity to catch our breath and take stock, something which couldn’t be more necessary given the play’s frenetic pace. As far as characters from the official story go, Matt Whitty’s portrayal of the Potions Master (Snape) was convincingly contrived in the brief moments we saw it. Throwing gender out the door, Olivia Charalambous played a rather self-important version of Harry, which was framed by how he was viewed by the Puffs. Annabelle Tudor as our initial headmaster was a hilarious take on the bumbling fool we sometimes know Professor Dumbledore to be, although it was short lived, as by the time we reached the third instalment it was rightly pointed out that “Dumbledore looks different this year”.
Rob Mills’ portrayal of Cedric was exactly what it needed to be. As the golden boy of the Puffs house he played the part with bravado and charm. Mills pitched the role well, understanding that the real comedy of the part is in him being the idol of a pathetically endearing bunch of misfits, and that he is their shining beacon leading them in their quest to win the House Cup—or at least to come third (out of four). Audiences familiar with the Harry Potter story would have known his character’s fate doesn’t extend beyond the fourth instalment, so it was great to see Mills return as Mister Voldy in Act Two. There is always a high expectation when you have a well-known actor cast alongside a bunch of relative newcomers to the scene, and for me Mills’ performance not only ‘exceeded expectations’ but was ‘outstanding’!
However, not even Mills stalking up the aisle with a taped nose and a green skullcap as the villain of the story, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, could top my favourite performer, or rather, performers… Puffs is without a doubt an ensemble piece of theatre, and the way these actors worked together at such a fast pace, never faltering in energy, was the highlight for me. The company should also be commended for performing a matinee version of the show that is more appropriate for children. Given how much content this cast got through in 100 minutes, with dialogue delivered faster than any show I’ve seen to date, I’m impressed they are able to stay in the headspace of which version of the show they are performing. The audience were absolutely enamoured with how these performers handled the balance of humour and heart that makes up the storyline from start to finish, because they gave as much of themselves to us as they could. As a result, the buzz of the auditorium was nothing short of electric.
Puffs is playing at The Alex Theatre in St Kilda through to the end of this month, and should be on the watch-list for any Harry Potter fan, particularly those who are still immersed in the pop culture phenomenon that the franchise has become.
To book tickets head to www.puffstheplay.com/australia
Review by Lachie McFarlane