When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened in Melbourne this February, there was one plush velvet seat empty in the packed theatre on opening night. Or perhaps it wasn't empty?
Mirroring the magical story currently being staged at Melbourne's Princess Theatre, there are ghosts in this theatre.
Seat B28, in the dress circle, is always left vacant on opening night for the theatre's resident ghost, Frederick Baker – stage name Federici – who died during a performance of Faust in 1888. Fred's character sank below the boards in the final scene, the actor suffering a heart attack and dying down there, unbeknown to his fellow cast members.
"The actors swore he took his bows with them on stage," recounts the theatre's owner, Jason Marriner. He tells of cleaners having thrown down their mops in fear of Federici's japes, which include shifting chairs around, sending cold chills up their spines. Obviously, he has taken the Potter oath and solemnly sworn that he is up to no good.
"The producers are emphatic Federici got his ticket on opening night, and even had to move people to accommodate him," Marriner says.
Lucky Federici – there hasn't been a seat free in the theatre since the eighth story in the Harry Potter series opened. Tickets to the theatre adaptation of the most successful literary franchise of all time are as rare as a Norwegian Ridgeback dragon's teeth.
It's the third production of the show after London's West End and New York's Broadway, and Federici is probably admiring the theatre's makeover of magical proportions.
The Princess has returned to its original colour and the rooftop Princess Angel glittering in fresh gold leaf. Look down to admire the carpets woven with the Hogwarts crest, look up to spy dragon lanterns lighting the entrance canopy and a one-tonne, four-metre sculpture of a child curled up in the eagle's nest, which has become the essential Instagram backdrop for theatregoers.
Many in the audience tonight channel their inner Harry, donning black-rimmed spectacles and swishing their black capes, and not all of them children.
While I am sworn not to divulge the magic, I can reveal that the whole audience gasps – with quite a few shrieks – as swooping owls, mind-bending time travel and Voldemort's sinister presence play out on stage.
I'm quite surprised to see a number of very young children in the audience. "Are you scared?" I ask the 11-year-old sitting in my row. "No," she confirms uncertainly, "but my little sister is," and points to the wide-eyed eight-year-old beside her.
During intervals, the bar in the foyer is busy pouring chilled wine and die-hard Potterites flash flesh tattooed with the intersected triangle that is the symbol of the Deathly Hallows – the cloak, wand and resurrection stone that Harry seeks.
The other hotspot at interval is the theatre's merchandise store. Fancy a beanie, scarf or pen in one of the Hogwarts house colours? The least expensive memento is a lanyard, $8, while a T-shirt is $40. "Thursday night, it was all Ravenclaw sales," says one of the cashiers. "Other nights, it's Slytherin or Hufflepuff. We just assumed Gryffindor [Harry Potter's school house] would always be the best seller, but you never know." The time-changer key chains are popular, and everyone loves the stuffed and fluffy owls – a little incongruous in this dark production, where they are harbingers of doom.
At the end of the second epic performance, we step out into the real world of Melbourne's city streets, holding tight the strands of magic woven for us on stage. A group of young autograph hunters stands behind a red velvet balustrade, awaiting the cast.
"Will the actors come out?" I ask a security guard. The cast has been on stage for hours, the sheer volume of dialogue is overwhelming, even without the physical demands of staircase ballets, train surfing and time travel.
"Oh yes," he replies enthusiastically, as Gyton Grantley (aka Ron Weasley) steps out from the backstage door, to a rapturous welcome. "They come after every performance, even when they do two in a day."
As I turn to leave, a theatre attendant hands me my badge of honour, which reminds me I am sworn to #keepthesecrets, as the official hashtag goes, and I walk out to the street, back among the Muggles.
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Visit Victoria.
Tickets for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child cost from $65 for each performance (tickets need to be bought separately for part one and part two). Tickets are now released for performances up to February 2020. See harrypottertheplay.com