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Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day at the Old Vic – review round-up

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Stephen Sondheim may have considered adapting Groundhog Day for musical theatre audiences, but it’s the creative team behind Matilda which has done it. Award-winning composer and lyricist Tim Minchin teams up with director Matthew Warchus and writer Danny Rubin (who also penned the original film, starring Bill Murray) to bring the 1993 comedy to the Old Vic, where it runs until September 17.

Staying true to the film’s original plot, TV weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl) finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the small town’s annual Groundhog Day, where he’s caught in a perpetual loop of events with each day playing out as exactly the same before.

Minchin admitted to The Stage earlier this month he was “nervous” about the musical’s critical reception, but it’s safe to say he’s delivered the goods.

Troy Nankervis rounds up the best reviews…

Groundhog Day – daring storytelling

Critics across the board are impressed with this screen-to-stage adaptation, with many noting the story’s inventive translation to the stage. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★) writes that Groundhog Day “looks, on first viewing, equal to, and perhaps better than, the movie”. Michael Billington (The Guardian, ★★★★) says it’s “fantastically smart, clever and witty”. Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter) calls the show “elegantly simple”.

Adding Groundhog Day is “like no other musical you’ve ever seen”, Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★★) says its success begins with “daring bravado” that embraces “a narrative conceit that has serious repetition built into it”. He writes: “Minchin and his collaborators have thrillingly made a show that stays in the same time and place for more than two and a half hours, yet has an inner momentum that never induces a sense of deja vu.”

Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Echoing these sentiments, Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★) says “the sheer aplomb of the telling is remarkable”, adding: ”The brilliance of the structure lies in the way that the creative team have found infinite ways to create the film’s equivalent of the jump cut, to move the story into different places and in unexpected ways, without ever losing its essential shape.”

And while acknowledging it’s a “tricky premise to communicate in pithy theatrical fashion”, Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★★) says “Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling’s meticulous repetitions illustrate [the plot] vividly” as a “manic balancing act that allows for an impressive variation of tone”.

Groundhog Day – how does it score?

Comparisons to Matilda are impossible to shake, and some critics are left divided as to whether Minchin’s lyrics and score deliver alongside Rubin’s book. Mark Shenton says the score achieves a “difficult balance of tone” while Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) calls Minchin’s lyrics “very clever and very funny”.

However, while Michael Billington observes the “extra ingredient” of the score creates a “dynamic theatricality” which sets it apart from its predecessor, he also says the songs are not given enough breathing space on stage: “The action, especially in the first half, is so fast and furious that the songs have little room to breathe. When things slow down, the numbers, with titles such as Hope and If I Had My Time Again, become amiably generic. It’s a score that serves the plot perfectly, but it’s not exactly one you ache to hear again.”

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Matt Wolf (The Arts Desk, ★★★★) says the lyrics don’t “always sit as easefully on the melodic line as they did in Matilda”, while Marianka Swain admits the “luminous score” has “no hummable breakout hits”. To Minchin’s defence, she says “a phenomenally detailed musical through-line where every number is in direct service to story and character” is captured.

Extending this notion, Matt Trueman (Variety) says “Minchin’s score almost functions like a commentary, prising Rubin’s plot open to pull out its themes”.

He writes: “Minchin gives ideas a musical shape. The small town’s sound is a twee time-warp tune and, as the one day repeats, reprises grow discordant and shrill. Two dive bar drunks drawl Nobody Cares, a country-ish drone around a repeating riff, then career off on a careless joyride as the song speeds up. Another number – Minchin to its core – spoofs the industries that peddle false hope through bogus therapies.”

Groundhog Day – Andy Karl excels

Also unavoidable are comparisons to Bill Murray’s memorable performance as TV weatherman Phil Connors, but critics are impressed with Broadway star Andy Karl’s spin on the role. Andrzej Lukowski says Karl is “really very good” with “his matinee-ish looks making sense of Phil’s womanising arrogance”, while Marianka Swain calls him “astonishingly versatile”.

Paul Taylor (The Independent, ★★★★★) writes Karl “tackles the demanding central role with fantastic aplomb, totally scotching the idea that Bill Murray is indispensable to this material”. He says: “He’s hilarious with his jerk-you-can’t-help-but-like charm and his devilish rhythmic cunning when negotiating those innumerable repetitions-with-variation. It must be exhausting work but he makes the task of carrying the show look effortless.”

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Henry Hitchings (London Evening Standard, ★★★★★) says Karl “oozes star quality, managing to be poisonously sarcastic, charmingly vulnerable, and charismatic even in moments of melancholy”, while Matt Trueman sees “a slicker, smugger presence” in the shadow of “Bill Murray’s jaded cynic”.

He writes: “Karl’s Connors is a man coasting on autopilot. He clenches his jaw in silent, smiling irritation and turns on a surface charm when the camera starts rolling. The irony is that it takes the world staying the same to shake him into the present, and, as one February 2 follows another, he learns to take each day as it comes and to treat others as individuals in their own right.”

Groundhog Day – is it any good?

Over and above the comparisons to Matilda, critics are definitely on board with Groundhog Day. Henry Hitchings says Groundhog Day is both “relentlessly amusing” and “profound”, while Dominic Cavendish writes the “extraordinary” production has set the Old Vic on “an incredible roll”. Ann Treneman (The Times, ★★★★★) says it’s “so much fun that it should be illegal”, while Matt Trueman writes the production is a “treat” that “wrings meaning and morality at every turn”.

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Michael Billington contends the “appeal of the musical” rests in its “redemption myth similar to that provided by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol”. He says: “Its ultimate homage to the virtues of small-town life also has uncanny echoes of the recently revived Allegro by by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But while the show is high-grade fun, I enjoyed it more for its dazzling theatrical expertise than for its much thinner emotional content.”

Sarah Crompton adds Minchin “might just be a genius” with “such an original and warm-hearted work”. Mark Shenton declares that Groundhog Day is “an absolute musical triumph that I will want to see again and again”.

Stephen Dalton is more hesitant, writing that “Warchus, Minchin and Rubin have neither ruined nor reinvented a classic modern fairy tale, but they have given it a fresh coat of paint and a lusty new spring in its step”.

Perhaps least forgiving is Quentin Letts (Daily Mail), who says “more work” and “more heart” is needed alongside “a leading man who can match the quirky appeal Bill Murray brought to the film”.

Read more theatre reviews on The Stage

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