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Groundhog Day review at the Old Vic, London – ‘an absolute triumph’

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. Photo: Manuel Harlan Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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A clutch of big musicals have launched directly into the West End in the past three years: Stephen Ward, From Here to Eternity, I Can’t Sing!, Made in Dagenham and Bend It Like Beckham, each of which failed commercially. But I suspect Groundhog Day will finally buck the trend.

Based on the 1993 film, its title has entered the language to describe days that seem to repeat themselves in our lives. This is a show about deja vu that, paradoxically, is like no other musical you’ve ever seen. It is daring on a number of levels, not least a narrative conceit that has serious repetition built into it: the lead character Phil Connors, a Pennsylvania TV weatherman, finds himself trapped living the same day over and over again.

That premise could become quickly wearying, but writer Danny Rubin (who also scripted the original film), composer Tim Minchin and director Matthew Warchus set up the premise with daring bravado in a bracing opening half hour that repeats the same scene unashamedly, yet incrementally expands the hero’s understanding of his plight at the same time as the audience becomes aware of it.

Just as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child plays with altered time frames for its characters, so Groundhog Day is a time freezer in which different outcomes can be manufactured, but only for today, as the same day is constantly reset.

The show refuses to stand still. Choreographer Peter Darling’s typically electrifying and energising parade of movement keeps driving the population of townspeople around our increasingly hapless weatherman into repeated frames of action that subtly alter each time they come around. The marching band – a staple of musicals since The Music Man – is a particularly iconic and ironic masterstroke that is insistently reprised, yet stunningly effective for conveying the small-town ethos of where Connors finds himself trapped.

“Nothing’s more depressing than small-town USA,” he sings. Yet this is a place with “a heart as big as any town”, and it’s where he loses his heart in a serious twist of time and place. It’s adorable and funny, yet also affecting and disturbing. What would we feel if deja vu wasn’t just a passing feeling, but a reality: that we really had lived that day before, and had to repeat it again, day after day? How would we use the previous knowledge of the people we met and what happened to them towards different outcomes?

Warchus has wrestled with such metaphysical possibilities before in the screen-to-stage musical adaptation of Ghost. He is reunited with some of the brilliant creative team from that show, many of whom also worked with Warchus on his last hit musical with Minchin, Matilda. They include ace illusionist Paul Kieve, set designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone and orchestrator and arranger Christopher Nightingale. This team has delivered its most mature and striking work yet. It’s infinitely playful yet darkly serious.

That difficult balance of tone is finely established in composer Tim Minchin’s evocative and exhilarating score, which draws on an extensive palette of musical influences from bluegrass to pop and musical theatre. It is at once supremely melodic, magical, haunting and hilarious. There are plenty of cheeky Minchin jokes throughout (I won’t spoil any by quoting them), but it’s a score that is attention-grabbing and delightful.

The production and its wonderful ensemble cast keep you watching on the edge of your seat. Kieve’s sleight-of-hand abilities to propel Andy Karl’s Phil Connors through different stage locations in the same number is amazing. Howell’s set is a work of magic itself, spinning on several revolves simultaneously to fluidly reset locations. Karl is both a captive and captivating presence. He’s a Broadway actor I saw last year doing scene-stealing supporting character comic work in a New York revival of On the Twentieth Century. Before that, he brought a brooding physicality to an otherwise misfiring stage version of Rocky, but this is surely his calling card to stardom. Karl exudes confident masculinity, yet moves through despair towards acceptance of his helplessness that shows real vulnerability.

As his TV producer Rita, Carlyss Peer is more standard-issue love interest, but she’s affecting as she tries to comprehend the situation he’s in. The remaining members of the more than 20-strong cast are billed as ensemble, yet each has recurring characters to play that make their mark as well, including Andrew Langtree as Phil’s former high-school friend and Julie Jupp as his landlady.

Stephen Sondheim reportedly once toyed with the idea of turning Groundhog Day into a musical, but he thought its apparently static narrative presented insoluble problems. I’m happy to say that 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. It’s an absolute musical triumph that I will want to see again and again. Unlike Phil Connors, I’d happily have the night reprise itself on an endless loop.

Read Mark Shenton’s interview with Tim Minchin

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Exhilarating new musical about life lived with the repeat button, which is itself worth watching more than once