Review by Daz Gale
There's a sense of deja vu at the Old Vic at the moment but don't worry - you're not stuck in a loop, it's just Groundhog Day returning there after 7 long years. Having fallen in love with the show the first time, I jumped at the chance to relive it again but had I built it up in my head too much or would my response be exactly the same this time. Based on the much-loved film from 1993, the musical adaptation of Groundhog Day had its world premiere in London in 2016 for a pre-Broadway run. However, its days on Broadway were fairly short-lived and the show has not been seen since it closed there in 2017 with a planned US tour cancelled. Whisperings of the show returning to London have been going around for years now and now it’s back for an encore run at its original home.
Groundhog Day tells the story of a problematic TV presenter called Phil (no, not that one). Weatherman Phil Connors heads to Punxsutawney for their annual celebration where a Groundhog determines if there will be six more weeks of winter. While he can’t wait for the day to be over, he finds himself in an endless loop, reliving the same day over and over again and has to see if there is any way out or if he will be stuck reliving February 2nd forever. The story has been adapted for the stage by Danny Rubin, who also wrote the movie. In doing so, it is effortlessly able to retain the essential elements that made the movie so well-loved while simultaneously bringing it up to date. There is a real understanding for how to maximise the impact of this show for the stage in an adaptation that feels very much its own entity as well as an extension of an already well-known and loved story. Witty writing leads itself to some great laughs with a great use of ensemble cast members (more on that later).
Matthew Warchus’ meticulously thought out and often playful direction is a key element to what makes Groundhog Day so special. Having to replay the same day over and over again and ensure each character does the same thing and each prop behaves the same way isn’t the easiest of asks but the attention of detail makes it all the more satisfying when it pays off. The changes (some subtle, some not to subtle) as Phil tries something different each day leads to a lot of fun in the staging of the show. This is also a show that lends itself well to repeat viewing with Easter eggs and seemingly insignificant moments suddenly having more meaning - as I realised with one such line involving the groundhog on this repeat watch. Compared to the previous Old Vic production, Groundhog Day is slightly scaled down with a bit less technical aspects and no revolve for this iteration. While that does lose a couple of moments (the ‘Night Will Come’ sequence was slightly more impactful with a revolve) it is still a visually impressive set with a gloriously inventive use of props. Rob Howells set design is a thing of beauty, working brilliantly alongside fantastic lighting from Hugh Vanstone and video from Andrzej Goulding, Props turning into cars, the use of toy cars to resemble a car chase are some of the highlights of Groundhog Day but there’s one particularly sequence that needs to be talked about…
The first time I saw Groundhog Day in 2016, I was blown away for several reasons. However, the one aspect of it that stuck in my mind and has pretty much stayed there for the entirety of the last seven years is the sequence surrounding act two musical number ‘Hope’. Apart from the fact I find the song itself to be a work of art, the staging of this number involving illusions and misdirection makes it what I believe to be one of the single greatest sequences in any theatrical show I have ever seen. The first time you see it, you can’t fail to be blown away by how it is pulled off – and even when you know what to look for and might catch how this is done doesn’t take away from the sheer magic and wonder of it all. Truly a genius moment in a consistently impressive show. Speaking of the music, Groundhog Day boasts music and lyrics from the legendary Tim Minchin. Though it is different than Minchins other much loved musical Matilda with more adult themes regularly uttered, it features his instantly recognisable and inimitable style. Clever and complex lyrics complement beautiful melodies, taking in a variety of genres with elements of folk alongside more conventional musical theatre sounding numbers. Highlights among the high quality numbers are ‘If I Had My Time Again’ and the truly stunning closing number ‘Seeing You’ which builds from a quiet start to an explosive finale, leaving audience members feeling euphoric. The aforementioned ‘Hope’ also features Minchin at its lyrical best with its subversive nature flipping the meaning of “Never give up hope” on its head in a dark yet clever way only Minchin could do.
The intelligence in Groundhog Day combined with its unconventional approach in certain aspects leads to some unexpected and rather unique choices. Act two opening with very brief supporting character Nancy (played by Eve Norris) getting her own musical number ‘Playing Nancy’ explaining what it is like to be a one-note character only seemingly there to be used by men… only to disappear again for the majority of the show sends a clear message with its clever approach. Similarly, the seemingly comic relief fleeting appearances from Ned lead to a surprising solo number full of heart and depth in ‘Night Will Come’ which fleshes out his characters backstory in a beautiful way. Crucially though, the intelligence in this show is always accessible to all and never hard to follow – getting that balance right isn’t always possible (I saw a show earlier this year that got this wrong in a huge way) and the way Groundhog Day treads this balance is flawless. The lead role of Phil Connors was played by Andy Karl both in the original London production and on Broadway. This is a role he is clearly comfortable with and knows the ins and outs of the character so it is reassuring he is back once again to don the miserable weatherman’s coat and scarf. A truly gifted performer, Andy Karl is once again a revelation in this show, with his mix of impeccable comic timing and stunning singing voice mixed with a clear joy and affinity for the show and role he has taken on. The love for the show transcends beyond the stage allowing it to be elevated further. There is also a sense of spontaneity and danger in Andy’s performance (I’ve seen the show more than once during this run already and witnessed different takes on key moments from him) which makes it feel even more live and unpredictable.
Tanisha Spring takes on the role of Rita Hanson with a real warmth that could melt the heart of anybody, even Phil Connors. Tanisha delights with a well-rounded performance that manages to showcase Rita’s love, vulnerability and ballsy no-nonsense nature. With a glorious singing voice (with a stunning rendition of 'One Day' among her own highlights) and an effortless ability to become the character, she more than holds her own against Andy Karl’s Phil, even eclipsing him in certain moments. The pair also display a wonderful chemistry which makes their eventual falling in love all the more satisfying.
The rest of the cast are listed as ensemble but each get a distinctive role in their tracks. All fantastic in their own right, highlights include Andrew Langtree's beautifully sensitive characterisation of Ned Ryerson, Eve Norris' determination to be more than Nancy and the joyous double act that is Billy Nevers and Kamilla Fernandes as Fred and Debbie. While the show is centred around our two leads, it doesn't hesitate to put the spotlight on any one of the supporting characters even for a fleeting moment, with ensemble members standing out in musical sequences 'Nobody Cares' and the riotously funny 'Stuck'.
I got to watch Groundhog Day through very different eyes this time around. While I loved the show in 2016, I didn’t have as great an appreciation for all technical production elements as I do now. Returning this year looking at it from a different perspective and then again in an official reviewing capacity were three very different experiences but all came up with the same conclusion – Groundhog Day is a masterpiece! Musical theatre at its best has the ability to make you feel and Groundhog Day makes me feel harder than potentially any show has before. If you were to ask me what it is about the art of theatre I love so much and why it is such an integral part of my life, I would take you to watch this show as a prime example. The level of care taken to create something extraordinary for this production is really apparent. The complex yet accessible writing, wonderful music, and stunning cast make for a truly special show – one that keeps classic tropes seen in many musicals before it while adding in newer elements and brave twists that sets it apart from the rest. Showcasing why theatre is so special to me (and so many others), this really is the perfect show and a strong contender for the best show of the year.
Even if you're seeing this for the first time there is something comfortably familiar about Groundhog Day that ensures you'll want to see it again and again. This is one experience I would happily repeat on a daily basis.
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐ Groundhog Day plays at The Old Vic until 19th August, Tickets from oldvictheatre.com Photos by Manuel Harlan