The only problem I had with the hilarious, impeccably choreographed, musical Groundhog Day at London’s Old Vic Theatre – you remember Bill Murray’s 1993 film about a man stuck in provincial purgatory, repeating the same day until he learns to be a better person? – is that I really rather loved the guy while he was still a jackass.
Sure, weatherman Phil (“like the groundhog!”) Connors is self-obsessed, cynical, punches an insurance man in the face, and is rude about his B&B host’s coffee and decor.
But his arrogance in the opening lines make them some of the funniest. The insurance guy really is annoying, the decor an abomination, and making bad coffee is the worst of all sins. Connors just seems rather too honest, a man not afraid to speak his mind.
We’re not shown enough to convince us he hates himself deep down, but to get maximum morality from the tale, we must believe he does and should totally change himself if he’s to find happiness, get the girl, and spread his new-found joy, Scrooge-like, throughout a snowy town.
But that’s a minor aside. Based on the movie classic, Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin’s musical is directed by The Old Vic’s artistic director Matthew Warchus in his first season at the theatre, and what a triumph it is.
Groundhog Day is the story of Phil Connors (American actor Andy Karl), a cynical Pittsburgh TV weatherman who is sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in the isolated small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, when he finds himself caught in a time loop.
More than two years in the making, and written before they even had the rights to the story, it’s a simple tale of atonement, self-improvement, forgiveness, and the age-old question of ‘what if?’.
What if we had a second (or third, or fourth) chance to go back and do things differently? The stupid thing we said to a date, the off-hand remark, the tiny mistake, that ruined a chance at something beautiful.
The perfectly cast and charismatic Karl nails it as weatherman Connors. It is no exaggeration to say that with a stage set as distracting, bold and complex as Rob Howell’s, a lesser lead would have seriously dented the show’s chance of success.
He’ll be an extremely tough act to follow for anyone taking this part in future – as they will. This show is a sure fire cert to become a West End and Broadway favourite. Karl gives no lazy Bill Murray tribute act but his own masterclass in comedy.
A couple of the writers’ more immature throwaway lines, like “suck my balls,” delivered by anyone but Karl might have only got 12-year-old boys roaring, but he deftly has the rest of us snorting out loud at virtually every word, walk, or the subtlest of facial expressions.
Memorable and particularly, gloriously, bad-taste, was the sequence of suicides as endless repetitive days start to get the better of our exhausted hero.
There’s some magical directing wizardry as Karl appears to jump in the bath with a toaster at one end of the stage only to appear two seconds later, under the bed covers, on the other side.
Switching unexpectedly, with a gun shot, from light-hearted fun to some pretty dark action, it’s a fast-paced, manic section of the show, and Karl doesn’t break a sweat or miss a beat.
Carlyss Peer’s Rita Hanson, an associate producer tasked with keeping Connors in check on Groundhog Day, is that rare thing: a female love interest who’s actually allowed some character development.
A no-nonsense 30-something career woman consistently let down by foolish men (that part’s unfortunately not such a rarity), Peer and her lovely voice tug at the heart-strings as Rita pretends not to care any more – when you know she’s as desperate to find a soulmate as the rest of us.
Howell’s set is astonishing throughout. Beautifully lit, tiny, overlapping, houses imply a close-knit small-town community, the upside-down buildings showing a world turned on its head by whatever voodoo has caused February 2 to repeat itself.
Everything appears, rotates, and changes faster than seems possible. In one of the most inventive scenes, a full-sized truck frame whizzes on stage in parts and is built in seconds, preceding a wonderfully trippy bird’s eye view of a cop chasing a miniature version of the van around miniature streets as Connors takes a drunken joyride.
Minchin’s lyrics are a blast. They are never predictable, often surreal and silly. “Dooby dooby tra la… something something quantum quantum” has to be the most scientifically accurate description of Reiki ever written.
The lament ‘Nobody Cares’ is a highlight as Connors joins two typical hicks in a bar. It is a sad but very, very funny reminder that not everybody stuck in the same town doing the same things every day are the victims of a supernatural plot device in a West End show. Believe me. I’ve lived in Norfolk.
There isn’t an obvious hit song to be hummed on the way home but that doesn’t matter. We’re more than adequately compensated by the sheer diversity in the score, the witty and intelligent lyrics, and the talent and energy with which they’re sung.
Groundhog Day is a new musical that ticks every box. It is superbly acted, has tremendously lyrical songs, an astonishing set, a faultless supporting cast, charismatic leads, warmth, wisdom, darkness, ups and downs.
They even made an enema amusing. It’s the funnest, funniest, musical in recent memory, and might just have bumped Minchin from ‘decent comedian who did a really great job on the Matilda music’, to musical theatre legend.
Groundhog Day is superbly acted, boasts an astonishing set, a faultless supporting cast, charismatic leads and buckets of warmth, wisdom and darkness.