Thursday, 28 July 2016

Theatre Review: Groundhog Day

The last time composer Tim Minchin and director Matthew Warchus collaborated a beautiful thing was created: Matilda.

Combining that level of genius with the much loved classic film Groundhog Day is a tantalising prospect which has generated a metric fuck tonne of hype.

But also a fair amount of wobble (technical term). The early previews of the new production, currently playing at the Old Vic, have been beset with problems to the result that many have been cancelled. I understand there have been issues with the financial backing for the proposed Broadway transfer. And Tim Minchin has been doing the rounds of the media giving the usually quite telling ‘I’m not sure what people will think of it’ interviews. Not encouraging signs. Had something gone horribly wrong in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania?

No, is the short answer. This production is a joy.

Image source.

Telling the story of weatherman Phil Connors who’s forced to repeat the same day over and over again (does anyone not know this?), Groundhog Day doesn’t seem to me to be an obvious story for a musical. Or not a good musical anyway. It seems to lend itself to a lazy shows where a version of the same song just repeats in different styles. Thankfully, this production is anything but lazy. It is incredibly ambitious.

For a start, the show looks absolutely incredible. The staging is astonishingly busy and complex incorporating frequent by-hand set changes, trapdoors (I assume), elements of puppetry and shadow puppetry, a revolve consisting of at least four concentric mini-revolves and a lot of people on stage at almost every moment. It’s not surprising to see why they’ve had so many problems in getting it going during early previews. That said, now that it is going it is phenomenally impressive and the staging itself is undoubtedly one of the stars of the show in its own right. I would love to sit through a dry run of this show just to see how everything works, which is not something you can say of many shows.

The music is fantastic, which goes without saying since Tim Minchin wrote it. It’s grand, it’s funny, it’s touching when it needs to be and the lyrics are inventive and brilliant. My favourite number, the name of which I sadly don’t know, was the one where the procession of quack doctors and priests trying to ‘cure’ Phil Connors of whatever they perceive his illness to be but ultimately admitting that they have no idea what they’re doing and their interventions are pointless. It’s funnier than I’ve managed to make it sound. Also the song about how depressing small town USA is is a beautiful hymn to cynicism which I for one am wholly on board with. And though there is obviously repetition it’s done in such a way that it is largely non-annoying. Plus the music stands up to repeated listens anyway.

Though the, reasonably small, ensemble is fantastic and hard working this is in many ways a one man show. It certainly relies on its leading man extremely heavily which, added to the fact that the iconic Bill Murray of course played the lead in the film, makes for what must be one of the more high pressure jobs in theatreland. Broadway import Andy Karl is the man on whose shoulders this all falls and, thankfully, he is more than up to the job. His is an absolute belter of a performance; genuinely outstanding. Dripping with charisma, he is a joyously enjoyable dickhead who transforms into a touchingly enjoyable Nice Man as the show progresses with a plausibility and emotional range that the show utterly depends on. He makes you invest in the story and root for Connors even when he’s awful. He also has a great voice, which helps in a musical. Meaty supporting characters are few, but Carlyss Peer is a great foil for Karl as his idealistic love interest and another stellar voice.

I loved this show. It’s a huge, ambitious, silly, dirty, funny, joyful riot of a thing that deserves to be a smash hit here and on Broadway and make a huge star of its leading man. Snap up one of the final remaining tickets quickly.

Groundhog Day plays at the Old Vic until September 17th.

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