Mark Shenton in the West End
3 November 2023
Time famously plays tricks on us all; but what if our lives were regularly and helplessly interrupted by finding ourselves involuntarily plunged into a completely different timeline of events, so that we’ve already met our future selves? How do you begin to sustain a viable relationship when you’re suddenly spirited away from your current life into a future one, and know the outcome already?
David Hunter as Henry.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
That’s the dilemma facing Henry, an amiable part-time librarian, and Clare, the aspiring artist he falls in love with, and first encounters when he’s 28 and she’s just 10. There’s a lot of fluidity to time in this construct; by the end of The Time Traveller’s Wife, he’s just 42 and she’s now 82, and still their love endures.
The lead producer of the show Colin Ingram, whose wife suggested that Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling novel would be ripe for a musical adaptation, has previously wrestled with ideas around time travel in all directions. This included post-death in bringing the film Ghost to the musical stage, and pre-birth when he most recently produced Back to the Future both in the West End and now also on Broadway, where a young man meets his own parents as high school students.
There isn’t the same linear narrative line to The Time Traveller’s Wife, though, and this makes it harder to invest in the random collection of events that playwright Lauren Gunderson has taken from the novel to create the book for this musical.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
But there is something bold and ambitious about the attempt to create something original out of so many moving parts. So even if the musical doesn’t ultimately entirely work, there’s a lovingly understated show yearning to burst out of its mellow mood that makes it a refreshing departure from most of the tried and tested usual formula of most new West End musicals. It’s a tender love affair of a musical – a labour of love in every sense.
But it may also be a musical about a daily existential crisis that’s having a crisis about its own existence. Might this have worked better as a play than as a musical?
It is nevertheless galvanized by a stunning pair of performances from David Hunter as the time-travelling lover and Joanna Woodward in the title role as his wife; they are the heart of it in every sense. Hunter has a rare Everyman quality as an actor – graced with effortless charm but also vulnerability as he realizes the high price he must pay for his condition, and the impossible position it puts his wife in, too. As in previous roles in shows like Once and Kinky Boots, he has a swagger of likeable charisma as well. Woodward is also radiant casting in the title role. With her gorgeous voice, she makes her songs soar, too.
A small supporting cast around them make their mark, with Tim Mahendran and Hiba Elchikhe providing some welcome comic relief as the couple’s best friends.
Dave Stewart and Joss Stone’s songs may occasionally sound in too generic a pop vein, but they are consistently gentle and charming, and refreshingly for a pop score it is never too loud.
Director Bill Buckhurst’s production anchors the show in the glossy but efficient landscape of Anna Fleischle’s sets. These are supplemented with dramatic video animation by Andrzej Goulding and clever illusions by Chris Fisher, which, as with the Old Vic’s recent Groundhog Day, make our time traveller make rapid exits and re-entrances in another place entirely.
I fear that the show may make its own too-rapid exit from the West End in turn – but if it fails, it will have been a noble failure.