He’s the man who made the magic of Harry Potter come alive on stage: John Tiffany pulled off the near impossible trick of crafting a blockbuster show that pleased both obsessive fans and snooty critics alike.
In doing so, he confirmed himself as one of the world’s hottest directors — capable of stonking commercial successes that are still spellbindingly theatrical. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre swept up at the Evening Standard, Olivier and Critics’ Circle awards, and is set to become a global phenomenon, opening on Broadway next year with other countries in the pipeline.
The stakes couldn’t have been any higher but he was a clever bet: Tiffany had already scored hits with the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, the musical Once, and a heart-stoppingly delicate take on Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.
“When I think about it now, it feels a bit more vertiginous than it felt in the middle of it,” he says of tackling the most successful franchise of all time — albeit with JK Rowling very much onside and a great script from Jack Thorne. “But as soon as we started performing, it felt like ‘it’s all right, people are going with this’.” It’s a typically down-to-earth way of putting it from a Yorkshireman who seems unfazed by theatrical world domination.
He could have his pick of projects now, surely, but his latest has no big-name stars or crazy budget. Road is a revival of Jim Cartwright’s 1986 play, set over one wild night in a Lancashire town devastated by Thatcherism and unemployment. It’s bleak. It’s also stingingly funny, and has a visceral poetry that rages against the impoverishment of people’s economic, social and spiritual lives. A long way from Hogwarts, then.
But Road is also something of a homecoming: it made a splash at the Royal Court 30 years ago but hasn’t had a major London production since. And Tiffany has vivid memories of reading the play as a 16-year-old, after a drama teacher at his sixth-form college in Huddersfield gave it to him.
“It blew my mind,” he says. “I was obsessed with theatre and loving the work of Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond, Howard Brenton and Howard Barker, people doing real formal experimentation. But Road was the first time I’d read a play written in a very true Northern dialect that seemed to have that excitement running through it.”
It was also bracing to read something that gave dignity to a Northern voice. “You grow up thinking you’ve got an accent great for comedy! But not necessarily intelligence or lyricism or poetry — and that’s still the case. It blows my mind that you get Shakespeare where the ‘low’ comedy characters have got Northern or Welsh accents. Really? Are we still there?”
For Tiffany, who switched from studying biology to drama and classics while at Glasgow University, Road has the potency and power of a Greek tragedy. “The character of Valerie, at the end, is begging the gods, shouting about how unemployment has trashed her relationship. In some ways it’s like Antigone screaming for burial rites for her brother.”
Although set firmly in the Eighties — Tiffany beams when talking about soundtracking it with obscure gems by James, The Railway Children and Happy Mondays and promises a lot of big hairdos — Road’s picture of neglected Northern communities is also timely. A similar anger, bubbling below the surface, has burst out in the past year, Tiffany suggests, seen in both the swing toward Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism and the vote for Brexit.
The play was famously originally a promenade performance but Tiffany is putting it on the big downstairs stage; he wanted to treat it like “a classic piece of European theatre”. Plus, he adds, it wouldn’t feel right today to turn the Royal Court’s bar in super-rich Sloane Square into a faux working men’s club. It is a queasy thought, albeit one that after a short pause prompts a characteristically hearty laugh from Tiffany.
He is cheerfully, and cheeringly, committed to making theatre that is truly accessible. There’s a steeliness to his grin, for instance, when discussing ticket prices for the Broadway transfer of Cursed Child: “I don’t think that just because people will pay a certain amount for a ticket that it’s all right to charge it. It’s very important to us to keep it accessible. [American producers] don’t have the same sense of social responsibility, but we do. And we’re calling the shots.”
Then there was the decision to cast a black actress as Hermione, causing a furore when it was announced — and further fuss when Rakie Ayola took over from Noma Dumezweni. “It was a political choice — well, not political so much as responsible,” says Tiffany. “[The show] was going to have the eyes of the world on it. There was no way I was going to have all three of those characters played by white actors.”
He also confesses it took him a while to commit to Cursed Child because “I knew that if I f***ed up, I would really f*** up, not just for me and the people I worked with but for theatre. Not wanting to be grand, but 60 or 70 per cent of our audience are first-time theatregoers. We had to make people fall in love with theatre as well as tell the next part of the story.”
When I ask if there’s a shortage of working-class voices like Cartwright’s in theatre today, Tiffany suggests there are still a variety of ways in for writers — the real problem is impossible fees for drama schools and the expectation that people can work for free, meaning acting and directing are becoming a preserve of the rich. “I know for a fact that if I was leaving school now there’s no way I’d be a director. It’s doubtful I’d make the choice to go to university, my mum and dad certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford it. That makes me terrified — how many are we losing? There’s a theory that ‘talent will out’: it’s not true.”
There’s no stopping him today, however. Not long after Road opens, Tiffany begins rehearsals for the National Theatre’s big Christmas show — an adaptation of Pinocchio, using the Disney movie’s songs and plot spliced with elements of Carlo Collodi’s original stories. Dennis Kelly, who wrote Matilda the Musical, is penning the script, so it’s fair to say it’ll be another scorching hot ticket.
Typically, Tiffany’s approach is hardly the razzle-dazzle of your usual big-budget Disney juggernaut. “It’s really dark. Kids love that, though! Of all the Disney films it feels much more like a European Grimm tale,” he says. I presume that’s something you’re running with, I ask? Tiffany grins.
“Oh yeah! That’s why I wanted to do it here rather than over in America. It’s going to take a European theatrical sensibility to pull this off.” Turning a Disney movie into a dark piece of European theatre that’s still fun for all the family? Sounds like just the project for Tiffany’s magic touch.
Road is at the Royal Court Downstairs, SW1 until September 9; royalcourttheatre.com