Audrey Niffenegger’s sci-fi romance ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ has already been a book, a film and a TV series. So you don’t need to be able to have seen the future to guess that a stage adaptation always seemed likely.
And here it is, with a book by successful US playwright Lauren Gunderson and songs by Brits Joss Stone and Dave Stewart, directed by Bill Buckhurst.
If you don’t know what it’s about, the title is nothing if not helpful. Henry (David Hunter) is a time traveller: he has an outlandish genetic disorder that makes him move through time and space – naked! – at generally unhelpful moments. And Clare (Joanna Woodward) is his long-suffering wife, who adores him but must live with a husband who constantly vanishes, and is present in her life non-chronologically. So, for instance, while she tries to live her life with the ‘current’ Henry, he inconveniently disappears on the day of her wedding; an older Henry from nine years into the future is aware this happens, and turns up to fill in.
If that sounds complicated: well yes and no. The genius and slight frustration of Niffenegger’s story is that, aside from the one outrageously improbable central plot point, it’s basically a fairly straight-down-the-line romcom with a weepie twist. It doesn’t allow itself to get bogged down in hard sci-fi stuff or the implications for humanity. Henry never tries to kill Hitler.
Buckhurst’s production leans into this: it’s extremely breezy and casual about the central premise, which is all to the good: it has little of the dourness and angst of the 2009 film, instead skedaddling along breathlessly as Henry and Clare meet cute at multiple points in their histories.
It’s worth noting that the fact the adult Henry repeatedly visits Clare when she’s a girl is dodgy as hell. But Buckhurst’s production and Gunderson’s book simply skip past that without giving the creepy vibes time to coalesce. The casting is a tremendous help: both Hunter and Woodward are essentially loveable goofs. They‘re funny and watchable and for all the icky implications of Henry visiting a prepubescent Clare (played by a rotating series of child actors), it feels about as wholesome as a middle-aged man visiting an underage girl he’s technically already had sex with was ever going to be.
The songs, meanwhile, are peppy and upbeat, closer to the brassy soul of Stone’s ’00s heyday than the electro-pop Stewart is known for. It’s also a very talky musical: the songs don’t feel desperately central to it, and the lyrics are often vague and non-specific to the action. Which is fine: if the songs aren’t the focus, they rarely get in the way – the music is more there to keep the momentum going and the vibes up than anything else.
Indeed, the biggest problem with ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ is that the first two-thirds slip down too smoothly. Nobody is asking for it to be ‘Tenet’, but the premise is so under-examined as to start to feel nothingy: a jaunty show about a man who happens to travel through time, like ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ without the adultery.
Eventually the penny drops for Clare that she has never seen a version of Henry older than early middle age, and the show makes a swerve into weepiness that blessedly doesn’t compromise pace. You’ll probably feel a little teary. But you’ll also be over it a couple of minutes after you’ve left the theatre.
‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ could be cleverer, more profound, with better songs and a more exciting story. But there’s something about its ease with itself that is beguiling. It’s watchable and fun, and if it’s not a great musical it’s an enjoyable one. Henry’s story may end sadly, but ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ is determined to give you a good time.