Last Updated on 7th November 2023
Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews new musical The Time Traveller’s Wife at the Apollo Theatre, London.
The Time Traveller’s Wife
SCIENCE FANTASY AND HONEST EMOTION
I don’t normally indulge in first-night anecdotes, but feel I should mention that in the big wedding scene, Joanna Woodward tossed her bouquet traditionally backwards right into the lap of the rather startled – and single – Chair of the Critics’ Circle Drama Section, next to me in Row L. Shot! But actually, this brand-new musical of Audrey Niffenegger’s romantic/sci-fi bestseller doesn’t need to woo anyone. It is, slightly to the surprise of this old grump who suspects musicals riding on famous movies and HBO series, triumphantly charming and emotionally fascinating. It is also very easy on the ear (the music by Joss Stone and Dave Stewart is pop-rock with real heart).
As for the plot, you may know it, but if not here goes: Henry suffers from a unique genetic condition which makes him suddenly and inconveniently vanish and travel in time, back and forwards, meeting important women in his life – mother, wife, daughter – at different stages of their existence. There are glitches of logic to make physicists cringe, and the fact that he always turns up naked has both comic and slightly creepy potential, but it does enable a wide, exploratory emotional pattern. There are fashionable themes: childhood dreams and childhood trauma, misunderstanding and maturing through early life, and the romantic female tendency to think you are questing for The One, a perfect man you dreamed of as a child and teenager, the stranger you will feel you always knew.
Thus the small child Clare meets Henry more than once, aged ten or so in a meadow (see what I mean about the nudity being potentially creepy, though he does find a rug to wrap up in). Then the teenage Clare is defended by him when another boy assaults her. Later they meet in a library, she being older than he, and she’s able to inform the alarmed young man they are married ‘in the future”. An opening which you’d think is enough to make any bloke dematerialize in urgent search of an injunction. Then we see them the same sort of age and happily married, but with his condition still persisting: which does for a moment make one wonder whether the whole thing is an artful plea for women to understand that there are times when a husband will keep vanishing without notice or explanation and return in need of clothes.
It’s an oddity of a plot, but skilfully told, even for newcomers to the novel and film: Lauren Gunderson’s book makes sure of its comprehensibility, as does the director Bill Buckhurst. Anna Fleischle’s revolving design of walls becoming screens enables some very neat illusion exits for David Hunter’s Henry. Indeed the opening of the second half is a real wow, with puppetised flying and terrific lighting and projection design by Andrzej Goulding.
A lot of the show’s charm depends on Woodward, who is an appealing presence, open-faced and intelligent, singing like a lark. As the production has made it a bit of a feminist mission to build the show more around her, an artist (lovely paper sculptures). than just around the chronologically disabled Henry’s adventures, her personal appeal helps a lot.
So does the music, with a sincere pop-ballad openness of emotion it would be hard to dislike, though only occasionally is a number really memorable. The bass ones are the strongest, with some lovely moments from the side character Gomez ( Tim Mahendron) and a really tremendous number between Henry and his grieving Dad (Ross Dawes) which makes your hair stand on end as the father, envious of his son’s trips into the past to hear his long-dead mother singing again, cries “I see her”. But all through you notice lyrics that may migrate and last long: when Clare is getting fed up with her constantly disappearing husband she has fine pop lines like “Treat me like a lover should / If you could change I know you would..” and he, husbandly, mourns “I can’t always be where I wanna be”. So there’s an interesting emotional line all the way through. And at the end, something rare in a rom-com, it acknowledges with real maturity not only mortality but extreme old age. It’s a surprisingly grown-up show, and will find a lot of love from all age groups.