Review by Daz Gale
In conclusion, The Time Traveller’s Wife is… no wait, that should be at the end, never mind.
After wowing audiences during its limited run in Chester last year, a major new musical has taken its time to make its way to the West End but has now travelled to the Apollo theatre. Would the time be right for The Time Traveller’s Wife to win over London audiences or is this one show that should have been left as a product of its time?
If you’re wondering how many puns about time I can cram into one review, I promise it will only be a few more times.
Audrey Niffenegger’s novel has captured the hearts and imagination of people all over the world since it was first published in 2003, having been famously turned into a major film in 2009 and, less successfully, a TV series last year. The musical adaptation also premiered last year in Chester, boasting an awe-inspiring creative team that certainly got tongues wagging when it was initially announced. It tells the story of time traveller Henry and his wife Clare (do you see where the title comes from now?) as they get to grips with their unconventional relationship taking place in different timelines for each of them. With Henry’s sudden disappearances causing problems for the couple as they attempt to build a life today, can love truly win the day?
The story has been adapted for the stage by Lauren Gunderson whose book effortlessly takes Niffenegger’s source material and faithfully finds ways to make it work on stage – no small feat given the complexities in coherently telling a story that doesn’t play out in chronological order. While it may admittedly take a little while to settle into, this is a show that gets better in time. I personally struggled to connect with the material in the early stages of act one as we are suddenly thrown into this chaotic world with no opportunity to pause for breath as the action moves from one timeline to another. However, as the laws of this world become apparent, it becomes much easier to follow and simultaneously fall in love with the story and the characters, resulting in a second act which overpowers the first immediately, going from strength to strength as it nears its thrilling climax.
For the musical elements of this show, two heavyweight performers have been enlisted with Eurythmics’ legend Dave Stewart joining forces with Joss Stone to create a score that feels contemporary and classic with an impressively high quality of songs from start to finish. The tone is set instantly with sensational opening number ‘Masterpiece’, expertly performed by Joanna Woodward and goes on and on to… well, ‘On and On’ – an undoubted highlight that will lodge itself in your ears long after you leave the theatre. Other highlights include David Hunter’s big act two solo ‘Journeyman’ (more on that later), ‘This Time’ and the brilliant ‘A Woman’s Intuition’.
The overall performances from this hugely talented cast are exceptionally good. David Hunter captivates as Henry, conveying the tormented nature of his gift/curse. As well as once again proving what a fantastic actor and singer he is, David also has a great deal of physicality to deal with as the swift appearances and disappearances of the character require some precise choreography and quick movement, all performed to perfection by a brilliantly accomplished talent.
Joanna Woodward shines as Henry’s wife Clare. With the story being told through her eyes, she is front and centre for most of it, having to grow both literally and figuratively as her character ages and deals with the twists her life with Henry has led her to. What Joanna does on that stage can only be described as a work of art in a real masterclass performance, exposing multiple layers of her character in a deeply nuanced performance. Her vocals soar when given the chance to, displaying expert control on the fittingly titled ‘I’m In Control’. Together, Joanna and David make a strong couple with gorgeous chemistry leading to a believable pair you can’t help but buy into.
Tim Mahendran and Hiba Elchikhe are a fabulous double act as couple Gomez and Charisse. While their stage time is rather limited and I would have liked to have seen more from them both, they make sure the time they do spend on there is memorable to say the least, with brilliant one-liners and one of the strongest sequences in the show in ‘A Woman’s Intuition’. Elsewhere in the cast, Ross Dawes has a standout moment as Henry’s dad in the hauntingly emotive ‘I See Her’ with Sorelle Marsh’s brief cameo as Henry’s mum living in my memory long after she had gone.
Another star I have to mention is one of the elements that makes this production of The Time Traveller’s Wife so thrilling and that is the production elements themselves. The design of this stage is quite simply jaw-dropping in a truly impressive feat of what can be accomplished in theatre. With cutting edge technology used to signify Henry’s disappearances (along with some fantastic stage magic), Anna Fleischle’s design truly is a thing of beauty. Combined with breathtaking video design and animation from Andrzej Goulding, illusions from Chris Fisher and stunning lighting from Rory Beaton & Lucy Carter, you are left with what is potentially the best looking and most impressive production this year. Bill Buckhurst’s expert and innovative direction expertly ties all of these elements together to create theatre magic in its purest form.
These elements come into play regularly with a sudden trick or flash changing the scene entirely. This is especially effective in a couple of quick jump scares involving Henry at a certain point in his life. However, the finest sequence in the show, and one that everybody will talk about long after leaving the theatre is ‘Journeyman’. Surely a contender for one of the greatest act two openings in recent years, everything about this sequence amazes. The precision of the video design, the choreography, and David Hunter’s performance create something that is the perfect example of what theatre can achieve at its best.
It may have been a long journey to get to the West End but it was more than worth the time as The Time Traveller’s Wife is a glittering addition to a bustling Shaftesbury Avenue. While it is not without its flaws and distinctively has a far better second act than the first, there is plenty here to appeal to lovers of musical theatre as well as fans of a good story. An innovative and mindblowing piece of theatre that blends video projections and illusions far better than other shows I have seen that have attempted this, it also boasts a truly phenomenal cast and no shortage of incredible songs. While it may prove divisive to some, as is the beauty of theatre, this show easily won me over. If I could go back in time and watch this glorious show again for the first time, I certainly would. It might not be completely a masterpiece just yet but it comes pretty close.
The Time Traveller’s Wife is currently booking at the Apollo Theatre until 30th March 2024. Tickets from https://nimaxtheatres.com/shows/the-time-travellers-wife/
Photos by Johan Persson