Photos – Kurt Sneddon
Puffs: Or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic is the hilarious, delightful, and even sometimes poignant story of Wayne Hopkins, an isolated geeky young boy in Queensland, who gets a letter inviting him to study at a rather familiar wizarding academy in the UK. But upon arrival it turns out all the cool kids get selected for the “Brave” house, or the Clever house, or even the creepy Snake one. Wayne finds himself assigned to the house with the badger mascot, where all the misfits, dummies and losers end up. Any hopes that our protagonist had of becoming a heroic wizard are quickly dashed as his own sorcerous ineptitude becomes readily apparent. Yet even that pales in comparison to the realisation that he is in the same school year as a bespectacled boy with a particularly famous scar on his forehead.
As you’ve surely gathered, this play tells an entirely unauthorised story about the overlooked students of the not-directly-named-for-reasons-of-copyright Hogwarts’ school house of Hufflepuff, whose stories run alongside and occasionally cross over with those of Harry Potter. As any reader of J.K. Rowling’s books or viewers of the film adaptations will know, Harry and most of his school contemporaries are in house Gryffindor. Over the course of the canonical series, the fewest characters of real significance hail from Hufflepuff, which is implied to be the least distinctive or impressive house. This, of course, gives playwright Matt Cox tremendous latitude to create his cast of titular “Puff” kids.
Of course, for time immemorial, stories have been retold, reinterpreted, and reconsidered from other perspectives. In the literary world, books that have entered the public domain become the source of “parallel novels”, retelling the events of classics like Robinson Crusoe or Jane Eyre from the perspective of a secondary character from the original story. However, in today’s media landscape where many of the most popular tales in the public consciousness are very much subject to active copyrights that will likely be defended in perpetuity, the closest equivalent is writing unauthorised stageplays with thinly-obfuscated characters, while never verbally using copyrighted terms like “Hogwarts” or “Dumbledore”. Presumably, they get away with using more mundane names like Harry Potter and Ron on the basis of parody protection laws, or perhaps just sheer cheek.
The story of the Puffs is that of a group of students who endure their seven tumultuous years at magic school, all whilst trying to fit in, make friends, experience their first crushes and other rights of passage, on the path to finding self-worth and identity. This proves especially challenging for our three leads, who not coincidentally happen to serve as loose parallels in turn to Ron, Harry and Hermione, while each being quite distinct characters in their own right.
In something of a subversion of Ron Weasley’s scholastic mediocrity, Oliver Rivers is a muggle-born maths prodigy who is dashed to discover that his gift for trigonometry and calculus is of no help in mastering wands and broomsticks. Moreover, this boy whose identity is defined by being “a clever person”, is bereft of the conventional academic subjects at which he excels, as they have no place in Hogwarts’ curriculum.
Conversely, goth rebel Megan Jones serves as something of a flipside not only to goody-two-shoes Hermione Granger, but also to some extent Potter’s schoolyard antagonist Draco Malfoy. She is, as we learn early on, the daughter of a Death-Eater, one of the villainous Lord Voldemort’s army of dark wizard henchmen. Megan struggles, not with the stigma of being the child of an Azkaban inmate, but rather over how being a dorky “Puff” will impact her carefully curated bad-girl image.
Hardest hit is our aforementioned notional protagonist, Wayne Hopkins. Initially filled with enthusiasm that he will be a child of destiny, Wayne is crestfallen to discover he is quite possibly the worst magician in a house that essentially seems to exist to take in all the borderline-remedial kids. Hufflepuff seems to collect the leftovers, those which none of the other three houses’ criteria deem remarkable enough enough to merit selection. Wayne thought he was going to be a storybook hero, but instead he seems to be the lowest of the low. Meanwhile, that famous kid named Potter seems to keep getting lauded as an actual hero, while getting caught up in all manner of dangerous magical hijinks on school grounds, many of which cause quite a bit of collateral damage amongst the student body.
What about the one Hufflepuff from the official stories that anyone really remembers or cares about, a certain handsome and athletic senior student named Cedric? You know, the one member of the house that all the Puffs can actually take pride in? Oh, he’s definitely in this play too, but… well, if you’ve got to the fourth book or film, you already know what ends up happening to him.
It’s hard being a Puff, when the stories are really all about Harry and his friends.
Although the show maintains a generally light, comedic tone throughout, it does nevertheless touch on some quite interesting and potentially darker, even metatextual concepts. While never going so far as to seriously interrogate issues like depression or toxic masculinity, it does raise related questions for the character of Wayne. What does it means to be an awkward boy raised on books, movies and comics that frame their protagonists as similarly awkward young men, who always discover they are “special” when whisked away to a life of adventure? For anyone personally identifying with such protagonists, a steady diet of these exciting and ego-fulfilling tropes in “chosen one” narratives risk engendering expectations that, for most people, can only be a let-down when real life turns out to be far less rewarding.
Mix in some appropriately timed teen angst, and you have a recipe for a seriously disaffected young wizard. Conversely, this leads to making some good gags by more openly acknowledging that the novels canonically take place in the grunge-obsessed 1990s (something which the films tend to obfuscate), allowing for cute popcultural references to Nirvana and the like.
In terms of the play’s more serious subtext, and especially Wayne’s character arc, Puffs asks the potentially unsettling question: “What happens when you discover that you are not the hero of your own story?” Or, perhaps even more pointedly: “How does it feel to realise you’re a minor, even disposable supporting character in someone else’s story?” The answers that the characters find for themselves are alternately sobering and uplifting, and the differing ways in which these themes can resonate may very well depend on how you feel about the course of your own life up to this point. Because maybe, just maybe, it’s actually okay to be average, occasionally inept, a bit of a dork, or simply a good friend, instead of someone who saves the world…?
At the risk of giving the playwright too much credit though, Puffs also makes the subtly clever choice of playing the frequent but brief appearances of Harry Potter himself as a very broad caricature of the heroic “golden boy”. This presents Harry as even a figure of resentment, the kid who gets all the adulation and lucky breaks, completely ignoring the considerable suffering and pathos that the character actually experiences in the official novels.
This seems like a clever adherence to the principle of maintaining the play’s focus as being from the perspective of the Puff kids, who of course are not privy to all Harry’s external tribulations, much less his inner turmoil. Additionally, to hardcore Potter fans, it even adds a sense of ironic heft to the notion that, just as Harry and his predominantly Gryffindor friends may be largely oblivious to the adversities of the overlooked Hufflepuffs, these Puffs in turn aren’t truly getting the full picture of what the Boy Who Lived is really going through either.
All this weighty analysis aside, on a surface level Puffs works as quite a fun, frenetically-paced show that has charm and energy to spare. Stylistically it is most akin to a pantomime, with very obviously adult actors playing kids in a hammy style that allows for both slapstick and moments of unexpected sincerity alike, but never resting for long on either.
This tonal cue from pantos speaks to the aesthetic of the production as well, with a low-budget approach to intentionally unconvincing and simplified costumes that go for iconic reference points rather than verisimilitude, evoking the recognisable broad strokes instead of fine detail. The seeming cheapness of the production belies its creativity, with many unexpectedly ingenious recreations of fantastic beasts, like the petrifying Basilisk or the dreaded Dementors, rendered through arts-and-crafty yet rather ingenious puppets and oversized costumes.
Truth be told, there were cosplayers in the opening night audience with far more elaborate costumes than any seen onstage, but the simplistic and stylised approach of the production not only allows for a lot of rapid character doubling and breakneck scene-changes, but also probably helps with dodging copyright issues as well. The (quite appropriately) unnamed Voldemort, for example, is simply represented by one of the actors wearing a swimming cap and nose-plaster, leaving to his performance the heavy lifting of embodying the character in all his overblown, raspy-voiced mannerisms.
Indeed, the cast deliver great performances across the board. While most of the characters are original creations for the play, many familiar figures like Professors Dumbledore, Snape, and McGonagall make brief appearances. As they are generally not named for legal reasons, it falls to the actors to make them immediately recognisable through some very canny and amusing impressions of the rather distinctive cadences of the actors who play them in the films.
The show is peppered with rather witty and obscure jokes for the diehard fans to spot, referencing some of the inconsistencies and adaptive divergences which the movies made from Rowling’s books. From joking about why the headmaster suddenly looks different from the third year of school to the fact that Death Eaters suddenly don’t need brooms to fly anymore, for the truly immersed Potter fanatics, this play is an embarrassment of riches in terms of “inside quidditch” humour. (Ten points shall be awarded to Hufflepuff house if you understand why Dumbledore makes mention of being “the very model of calm” after screaming about the Goblet of Fire.)
The conceit of presenting an intersecting parallel story to the main Harry Potter saga is also fodder for some great gags, wherein the play inserts supposedly unknown motivations for events in the main story that now happen offstage in this one. Suggesting that misfortunes which befell certain characters in the books may have been indirectly caused by a comment or action from the Puffs, or that chance encounters led to more important outcomes than either party suspected, are all sources of great gags for those keenly attuned to how the respective narratives line up.
All of which begs the question, that if this play is rather obviously tailored to big-time Potterheads … how would Puffs play for a more general audience? Well, the narrative in and of itself is certainly comprehensible, and the characters and conceit are entertaining in their own right, since even a theoretical audience member that’s not conversant in Rowling’s minutiae must certainly be aware of who Harry Potter is, at the very least.
Anyone who hasn’t at least seen most of the movies is in risk of being a tad perplexed, but they should still be amused enough by the generally funny content of the character comedy. The only caution worth issuing, as the producers themselves do, is to probably not bring any young children to the play, as it does contain ribald content, as well as some mature themes regarding death and loss, as indeed do the later books and films themselves.
This is a fabulously fun show, with a terrific ensemble cast giving it their all in a production that may give the careful impression of running on the fumes of an oily rag, but in truth seems powered by some very big-hearted theatrical magic indeed.
TEG Live in association with Tilted Windmills Theatricals, John Arthur Pinckard & David Carpenter presents
Puffs: Or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic
by Matt Cox
Director Kristin McCarthy Parker
Venue: The Pop Up Theatre | Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park NSW
Dates: 23 May – 30 June 2019
Tickets: from $69.90