The Time Traveller’s Wife at the Apollo Theatre review: played for gloopy sentiment and goofy laughs

Joanna Woodward as Clare and David Hunter as Henry in The Time Traveller's Wife (Johan Persson)
Joanna Woodward as Clare and David Hunter as Henry in The Time Traveller's Wife (Johan Persson)

It’s frankly astonishing that the combined talents of former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, soul artist Joss Stone, and America's "most produced living playwright" Lauren Gunderson should come up with a musical as bland as this.

The grand romance of Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 bestseller, which asked smart questions about how you’d cope if your partner was repeatedly, involuntarily transported through time, is here played for gloopy sentiment and goofy laughs.

In the title role of “paper sculptor” Clare, Joanna Woodward has a strong, rich voice that makes her big number, One Day, one of the few standout songs. As sporadically vanishing hubby Henry, David Hunter has a slap-happy, sitcom cheerfulness, as if regular temporal dislocation were just a mild inconvenience, like the occasional sneezing fit. Together, they have zero chemistry.

“Will you not mind/If I leave you behind?” gives you an idea of the overall lyrical sophistication. BillBuckhurst’s production plays like a mashup of an Eighties romcom and an Eighties pop video (in the second-act opener Journeyman, Henry is “flown” around behind images of shattering glass by a team of ninja stage managers). Clare’s sculptures, the costumes and wigs are truly dreadful.

A couple of Henry’s disappearances are cleverly done by illusionist Chris Fisher but mostly he nips offstage crying "oh no, it's happening again…" Andrzej Goulding’s projections onto Anna Fleischle’s rotating sets are effective, but it’s pretty bad for a musical if the audience comes out whistling the scenery.

The premise now feels downright creepy. Henry started time travelling aged six when his mother was killed: initially he’d often “visit” her as well as random eras and locations. From the age of 28 he also starts visiting Clare as a child: they bond over family trauma, he encourages her art, and he beats up a boy who assaults her in high school.

Did I mention he’s naked when he travels and when he returns to the present? Anyway, when they then meet, both in their mid-20s, it’s the first time for him but she knows him well. Later he’ll visit their daughter before he’s helped conceive her.

This is weird, potentially mind-bending, existential stuff – and on a granular level the story is abouthow women cope and men deceive. But here, the two just breeze through life, their icky romance interrupted by the odd row. It’s not even explained how Henry holds down his library job, nor why he doesn’t think of buying a lottery ticket until halfway through.

I remember liking how Niffenegger blended schmaltz and theoretical physics, and her book is clearly still seen as a bankable asset. But after a widely derided 2009 film, a cancelled 2022 HBOseries and this pedestrian and distasteful musical, I reckon it’s time to think again.

Apollo Theatre, booking to March 30; tickets available here

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