For the millions of readers held rapt by Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel, about a woman who falls in love with a time traveller, this might feel like a trip back in time. But alongside the safety of adapting a bestseller on stage, there is a degree of chutzpah in theatrically realising a romance with a dizzying temporal complexity and non-chronological narrative.
Due to a rare genetic disorder, Henry (David Hunter) zigzags through time, involuntarily leaving his present to be landed in the future or past. He seeks out Clare (Joanna Woodward) in these forays, from her childhood to the moment he asks her to marry him and beyond, with disappearing acts in between.
This musical incarnation is given stardust by Dave Stewart and Joss Stone, who jointly provide a strangely forgettable mix of rock and pop tunes with wholly pedestrian lyrics. Songs such as Clare’s earnest One Day, when she sings of realising her dreams, do little to breathe life into characters or story, certainly in the first act, with a sound that verges on muzak.
In Bill Buckhurst’s production, the book by Lauren Gunderson remains resolutely earthbound as it lays down the complicated groundwork of the story. There are powerful voices all round even so, especially Hunter and Woodward, along with Tim Mahendran and Hiba Elchikhe as Clare’s high-school friends Gomez and Charisse although they are drawn as broadly comical types. Clare and Henry make a vanilla couple, their romance relayed in short scenes with snatches of song.
The story of a woman waiting for her man until the end of time seems dated, although Clare’s eternal waiting is interrogated later on. It could be seen as a metaphor for a toxic relationship rather than a heart-melting romance – that of a partner who disappears, leaving his other half struggling alone, returning with his excuses, time and again.
The odd mix of light and dark does not fully gel. Alcoholism is glimpsed through the story of Henry’s father (Ross Dawes) after the death of Henry’s mother (Sorelle Marsh). Clare briefly speaks about her mother’s (Alexandra Doar) bouts of depression. But these are touchpoints of sadness, sometimes covered with a single song.
In the end, the optics sell the production, with well-crafted illusions by Chris Fisher for Henry’s disappearing acts. His time-travelling is signified by a crackle of light and we see his silhouette twist behind one of set designer Anna Fleischle’s beautiful gliding screens. He is rendered naked on arrival to a new time zone, and there is a certain oddness in seeing scenes between Clare as a child and Henry as an adult hastily covering up that nakedness. The book made explicit that there was no improper feelings in these scenes and there is no queasiness here.
A far more exciting second half opens with one of the strongest musical numbers, Journeyman, accompanied by astonishing projection work by Andrzej Goulding which shows Henry crashing though time. It seems like a high-end pop video wedged into a show but is a wonderful set-piece nonetheless. Questions around time and mortality are gradually explored more fully, and the romance comes to be felt rather than merely performed.