Review of the Brisbane Powerhouse matinee on 24 August 2019. Duration 100 minutes plus intermission.
Seven Years at a certain wizarding school look very different from the underdogs perspective.
PUFFS is clearly made by someone who loves Harry Potter, but is not blind to its faults. Ever since it appeared on the scene, fans have been obsessed with which house they would fit in (Brave, Smart, Snake), but it was fairly clear that not all houses were created equal.1 Puffs answers the question, what is it like to be in the other, other, other house at Hogwarts, in the most humorous way possible. It has just enough of the serial numbers filled off to fit under fair use, but anyone with even a passing awareness can fill in the gaps pretty easily.
It starts, as it must, by introducing us to a local orphan who was unaware of the wizarding world and has just received their letter and is heading off to a new world feeling that they are special and destined for great things. There they meet a very confused mudblood,2 and a legacy who will inevitably hook up with each other, and they are all sorted in with a dozen or so Puffs under the guidance of the only competent Puff, Cedric.
Where Puffs works best is as a comedic meta commentary on Harry Potter; from what it is like for the other students when their are monsters and killers wandering the halls (Puffs group up and chant “We are not a threat”), to getting the important talk for teenage wizards from the faculty.3 It is genuinely funny the whole way through, with jokes pitched all the way from casual fans, through movie watchers, all the way to the die hard book fanatics. Cox even manages to slip some substantive criticisms in, from the special treatment of the heroes to Dumbledore’s misplaced message of love.
Each year is an opportunity for the Puffs to strive for third, and the production hits high gear in year 4 (“The year we mattered”), as the Puffs pour their hearts and souls into the Tri-wizard cup (and Harry flounces around and ruins it). The integration of the intermission is genuinely delightful, and then the characters return for the last three books. It’s here that the production runs aground a little, as there is textually less to integrate the Puffs into for books 5 & 6, and instead they try to fill it with some Puff character development, by way of Draco, that doesn’t really work.4 Things perk up again in the last book, as each of the Puffs is finally given their chance to shine away from the limelight.
Format wise, Puffs is firmly in the Pantomime tradition: simple staging,5 over the top acting, and simple yet hilarious prop work. The Brisbane performance of Puffs managed to do amazing things with very little. The puppetry of the Dementors was suitably scary and impressive, but mad-eyed Mooney was simply a man with a giant googly eye strapped to his face, and Harry wandered round with a red headed mop and/or a bushy wig. Magic was achieved with lights, distraction, and occasionally very obvious comedic interventions. It was a show that took advantage of its limitations and squeezed laughs out of them.
Similarly, the acting was pitched for the cheap seats, with everyone wearing multiple hats and characters often swapping mid scene. The cast appeared to be genuinely enjoying themselves, and it lifted the production. Gareth Isaac as the Narrator deserves particular praise, it’s the role that is the glue of the production, and he always nailed whatever tone was required of the scene, selling many jokes with a shift of his voice or a smile. Similarly, Angelina Thomson had the burden of the weakest part of the production, with Megan’s arc towards the end, and she managed to stop it bogging down the show.
This is broadly an all ages production,6 though amongst our cohort, it is probably worked best for the eight to adult group. The better your Harry Potter knowledge, the more you will get out of it, but even someone with a passing familiarity will have a good time. Amazingly, even this Harry Potter curmudgeon quite enjoyed it.
A comedic companion of Harry Potter that has something for everyone, playing in Brisbane with a fun cast and solid production.
- In fact this is one of my biggest beefs with the original Harry Potter.
- Who in a great bit of commentary is a math prodigy who is utterly baffled by the lack of, well, math classes at Hogwarts.
- A joke so funny, it caused the only break in the performances.
- Actually this isn’t entirely true, the comedic payoff in the last book is solid, but not enough to justify the detour.
- Literally four doors and a stage.
- In the sense that anything that is inappropriate for the youngsters is couched in enough innuendo to be invisible to them.