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article imageReview: 'Harry Potter' stage parody makes glorious return to Toronto Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Dec 18, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - I've missed several chances to see “Potted Potter”; besides its previous Toronto run in 2012, the world-touring revue has been in London and New York at times when I happened to be in those cities. Despite the new cast, it was worth the wait.
Created in 2011 by British comics Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience delivers what it shills, more or less: a condensed version of all seven of J.K. Rowling's beloved Harry Potter novels into seventy minutes. But the real storyline is in the hilarious interaction between straight man James Percy and goofball Benjamin Stratton – and between them and the audience. (Percy and Stratton replace Turner and Clarkson respectively; they will alternate with Jesse Briton and David Ellis during this T.O. remount, which opened last night.)
Percy, it seems, expects the show to be a big-budget extravaganza featuring twenty of the U.K.'s most renowned actors. But Stratton – who hasn't even read any of the Potter books and keeps confusing them with the Narnia and Lord of the Rings series – spent most of the money on the dragon for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. So it's really about how Percy, playing Harry Potter, tries to keep the show running smoothly while Stratton, as all the other characters, keeps messing things up, and the ensuing slapstick hilarity. Stratton's so out of touch with the Potter universe that when Percy gives him a magic marker and implies that it's for Harry's forehead scar, Stratton prints “HARRY” on Percy's forehead instead. He also gives the Dobby puppet a Gollum voice, whispering, “My precious!”
Potted Potter is like Harry Potter in at least one important way: although it's mainly geared to kids, adults enjoy it just as much, if not more. There are multiple levels of G-rated comedy and light satire, ranging from cornball puns (instead of a Hogwarts set, Stratton brings stuffed dolls of warthogs) to more subtle references (the set “mistakenly” features a copy of Rowling's grownup-aimed novel The Casual Vacancy instead of Prisoner of Azkaban). Audience participation is frequent and encouraged, with the kiddies goaded to cheer and yell out answers. The script is apparently updated and adapted for different cities; Stratton and Percy toss out references to Rob Ford and the Toronto Maple Leafs, while describing Percy's over-the-top Snitch costume as “Bob the Builder on a night out on Church Street.”
The centrepiece is a real, live-action Quidditch match with the audience. Actually, it's more of a makeshift volleyball game in which the audience on the floor tries to keep a beach ball in the air and slap it into the hoops on the side walls. (To those up on the balcony, Stratton quips, “You should have booked earlier. It's a life lesson.”) After this, the performers invite two kids from the audience to come onstage to “catch” Percy as the Snitch; in last night's performance, one boy actually tackled him to the ground.
Director Richard Hurst keeps Potted Potter running at a whip-fast pace, with never a slow or wasted moment as the show hurtles to get as many laughs as it can in an hour and ten minutes. Stratton and Percy are up to the challenge, and their onstage chemistry is great – they match each other's rhythms almost perfectly. Funnily enough, last night's performance included a number of mistakes and breaks from the text – the Potter glasses broke, the Quidditch didn't go quite as planned, the actors corpsed several times – and this only made the show funnier. Percy and Stratton revealed themselves to have their improv skills pat, and they spun every unexpected glitch into comedy gold.
Although the show pretends to have low production values (thanks to the expense of Stratton's “dragon”), it has some fun visual moments. There's a short, goofy video presentation summarizing Azkaban, screened on the Narnia-style wardrobe at stage centre; there's also a climactic karaoke battle between Harry and Voldemort, with rewritten lyrics for “I Will Survive”. Stratton and Percy keep the giggles going as they match silly wigs, costume pieces and voices with verbal wit. Turner's and Clarkson's script boasts many quotable lines: when Percy asks Stratton if he's read the seventh book, he replies, “Yes! In the sense of no,” and Stratton's erroneous beach backdrop, meant to represent a forbidden forest, includes what he calls “a very evil coconut.”
If you have kids, bring them to this show as a holiday treat. If you don't have kids, go with a friend who loves Harry Potter. Even if you don't like Harry Potter, go anyway, because you'll still laugh a lot.
Potted Potter runs at the Panasonic Theatre until January 11.
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