'Groundhog Day' review – this extraordinary musical is a total triumph, again
Read our five-star review of Groundhog Day, starring Andy Karl, now in performances at the Old Vic through 19 August.
If any show was tailor-made for repeat viewings, it’s Groundhog Day. It’s not just the inspired time-loop premise of Danny Rubin’s tale – first seen in his 1993 existential romcom movie, then in this stage musical adaptation with Tim Minchin for the Old Vic in 2016 – but the extraordinary intricacy of both writing and staging, which mean that each encounter with it reveals new wonders. This fresh run proves once again that the production is a timeless triumph.
The magnificent Andy Karl, who won an Olivier for his smooth-talking, jaded weatherman Phil Connors, reprises the role. Phil becomes trapped in the small town of Punxsutawney, Philadelphia, after reluctantly reporting on whether its resident groundhog has seen its shadow, which would mean six more weeks of winter. Or, as he grumbles in his dismissive opening number, “talking to hicks about magical beavers.”
Matthew Warchus (who also collaborated with Minchin on Matilda) creates his own kind of magic through the astonishing repetitions in Phil’s purgatorial trap – even slicker here in this streamlined revival. Each scene has to play out exactly as it did on the “previous” Groundhog Day, but with subtle variations (like Constellations on a larger scale), as Phil is first baffled, then infuriated, liberated, nihilistic, and finally accepting of his situation.
There are incredible feats of staging in which Karl seems to be in two places at once (the illusions, by Paul Kieve, draw rapturous applause) while the ensemble, brilliantly drilled by Lizzi Gee, has absolute clockwork precision. That’s balanced with endearingly low-tech theatrical solutions to questions like “How do you stage a car chase?” Answer: with handheld miniature vehicles and houses, and a dose of knowing humour.
But Groundhog Day isn’t just a logistical tour de force: it’s also a complex, witty, and deeply empathetic drama. Karl delivers an even richer portrait of Phil this time around – and, unlike Bill Murray’s laconic version, his begins explicitly sleazy, nasty, and supercilious. In fact, there’s a hint of Succession: You could easily imagine Kendall Roy, as Phil does here, demanding the cops find a “fast lane for celebrities” through the blizzard-struck roads.
He initially uses his time-warp existence to fuel his predatory pickup artist activities – as though each woman is a level on a video game he can keep playing until he wins it. But he can’t bullshit his way into his producer Rita’s heart (or bed), and it’s only when he takes a genuine interest in other people’s lives, instead of manipulating them for his own benefit, that he finds meaning and purpose.
Karl manages that transition expertly. He’s aided by Minchin’s dazzling, eclectic score, which darts between an incisive takedown of those who promise cure-all solutions – from religious fanatics to alternative therapists proffering reiki or enemas – and a jagged, daringly bleak grunge-rock song as Phil tries various methods of suicide.
Phil eventually discovers that love is in the details – a luminous idea reflected formally in Minchin’s exquisite craftsmanship. There isn’t one lazy rhyme or vague platitude. His lyrics teem with pithy phrases, specific and vivid references, and challenging ideas. It honours an ambitious story that, beneath its droll satire, asks nothing less than what life is for.
If not quite as fully developed as Phil, the show’s Rita has more of a voice than in the film and stronger agency. Her funniest number articulates the dilemma of the modern woman, who wants a respectful partner, yet guiltily fantasises about a strong man tossing her over his shoulder. Tanisha Spring brings a radiant warmth, shrewd intelligence, and gorgeous vocals to the role, and she has a lovely slow-burn chemistry with Karl.
The best gag in the piece comes when Phil asks two barflies “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?” – kicking off a cracking honky-tonk country song in which they express exactly the same defeated sentiment. It's marvellous melancholic (and alcoholic) comic timing from Nick Hayes and Chris Jenkins.
But Minchin also subverts our expectations with several punchline characters, emphasising that everyone has a story worth hearing. In the second half, Andrew Langtree’s annoying, squeaky-voiced insurance salesman Ned Ryerson opens up a well of grief, while Eve Norris passionately delivers a blistering meta-song about being cast as perky, sexualised characters like Phil’s one-night stand Nancy.
Dismayingly, that latter point feels as pertinent as ever, as do the microaggressions and casual misogyny that come Rita’s way in the workplace. Although she’s a capable 36-year-old associate producer, Phil dismissively calls her “Kid.”
Other elements struck differently post-Covid. We’ve all now experienced that Groundhog Day horror of being trapped – strongly evoked in Rob Howell’s claustrophobic hotel room set, nightmarishly lit by Hugh Vanstone. The core point about living for the moment, since no one can “forecast” the future or know when it all might end, hits home with almighty power.
But the biggest takeaway is the solace that Phil finds when he immerses himself in a community – our greatest loss during the pandemic, both on and off stage. There’s immense joy in both big set pieces like the ensemble doing a soft (snow) shoe shuffle together, and in small moments of human connection.
Lets hope Groundhog Day makes it to the West End this time, so we can savour its brilliance again, and again, and again...
Photo credit: Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)
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