'The Time Traveller's Wife' review – the hit sci-fi novel is reborn as a beautifully relatable musical

Read our three-star review of The Time Traveller's Wife, starring David Hunter and Joanna Woodward, now in performances at the Apollo Theatre to 30 March 2024.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling sci-fi romance novel has already been adapted twice: for film (starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana) and TV (Rose Leslie and Theo James). Now The Time Traveller’s Wife is reborn as a stage musical – and I found this version by far the most satisfying dramatisation of the three.

Lauren Gunderson’s book does a great job of clarifying the zigzagging plot. The story begins with Clare and Henry, both in their twenties, meeting in a library. Only Clare actually first met him when she was 10 and he landed in her garden while time-travelling (it’s an involuntary genetic condition). The pair are constantly drawn together, just not in the right order. Can their relationship survive the strain?

Substitute time travel for, say, one partner having to constantly commute, and it becomes very relatable. The “meant to be” soulmate dream butts up against a cold, hard reality in the second half: Clare must constantly put her life on hold while she waits for Henry to return. A plotline concerning their difficulties in conceiving, and how he undermines her agency, is especially strong. I just wish it was given more space in this hurtling narrative.

The other woman who Henry frequently visits is his late mother, and a grief-stricken scene in which he and his father confront one another over her loss is raw, jagged, angry and emotional. But the show, which has an old-fashioned sentimental core, continually argues that it’s worth the pain to love this deeply.

There are some strange tonal leaps. Henry apparently has no free will while travelling, yet can buy a winning lottery ticket – undermining their practical challenges. Clare’s sexual assault is badly handled; it becomes all about Henry taking violent revenge, and another male friend then judging him.

The show does address a big issue from the novel: the imbalance in the main relationship, with an older Henry all but grooming Clare to fall in love with him. Their early meetings are still a tad creepy (it doesn’t help that Henry travels naked), but this Clare makes more active choices and holds him to account.

Joanna Woodward’s sheer passion and vocal fireworks enliven the pleasant easy-listening score from Dave Stewart and Joss Stone – a mix of soft-rock, pop, gospel and soul. Woodward is particularly strong in the cathartic number “I’m in Control”.

David Hunter, who was similarly great in the contemporary-scored Waitress, has his big moment in Act II opener “Journeyman”, which plays like a bombastic music video or Eurovision entry. As Henry bemoans his time-travelling lot, he’s lifted aloft and seems to crash through Andrzej Goulding’s bold projections.

It’s difficult to build chemistry in short-burst scenes, but the central pair do have a funny, warm rapport, and I bought this meeting of two lonely people, estranged from their families, who build something new together. They get good support from Tim Mahendran and Hiba Elchikhe as Clare’s friends, and Ross Dawes as Henry’s dad.

Anna Fleischle’s revolving design matches the story’s circularity, and aids Bill Buckhurst’s production in moving seamlessly between the constant time and location jumps. The use of projected notes telling us when we are, and how old Clare and Henry are, helps too, as do Fleischle’s vivid period fashions – plus she has a ball with the eye-watering 80s ones.

Chris Fisher’s illusions are sometimes phenomenal, but there’s also rather a lot of Henry jogging offstage before he “travels”. It’s perhaps too literal for a story that uses sci-fi more as a metaphor for our relationship with time and love – whether it’s the agony of losing someone too soon, or the comfort of knowing that, in some sense, they always travel on with us.

The Time Traveller's Wife is the Apollo Theatre through 30 March 2024. Book The Time Traveller's Wife tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Time Traveller's Wife (Photo by Johan Persson)

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