Last Updated on 10th June 2023
Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews the return season of Groundhog Day at the Old Vic Theatre, London.
Old Vic Theatre
WELCOME BACK TO PUNXATAWNEY
Seven years after its premiere at the Old Vic earned a flurry of Oliviers, by way of a pandemic and a disappointingly short Broadway run, here it is again. Hurrah! Tim Minchin – as clever as Sondheim and as melodious as Gershwin – put music and lyrics to a reworked book by Danny Rubin from the famous film, and turned an amusing, original but fairly forgettable movie into something still funny but bigger. It is noisy, joyful, arresting and wise: a modern myth with all the absurdity and grandeur of any classic of redemption.
I had forgotten how much I loved Matthew Warchus’ extravagant production, a daft silly grin spreading over my face from the warm opening ballad to spring and first glimpse of the tiny lit houses (Rob Howells’ set is adorable, the town literally wrapped around the action). It feeds, ironically, off the beloved old movie image of middle America’s Main Street, as Punxtawney is scorned at first by the hero singing “nothing more depressing than smalltown USA”. In a fabulous outbreak of Groundhog Festival capering the town ensemble is a hero itself: a community of the unselfconscious ordinary.
Again we have the irresistible Andy Karl as Phil the big-city TV weatherman doomed to mend his arrogant ways by having to relive the same February 2nd every day afresh in a place he despises. He has a lively and beguiling new co-star in Tanisha Spring as Rita the put-upon producer, and Eve Norris stops the show with Minchin’s melancholy song about the doom of “being Nancy.. a perky breasted one night stand” in careless men’s stories. There’s another piercing solo moment as the darker wisdom of the show develops in the second half. Andrew Langtree is Ned the widowed insurance salesman, expressing the small-man heroism of unremarked endurance in a tiny Death of a Salesman moment: “On and on you stumble, towards the fading sun…rest assured the night will come”
Minchin, the man who in Matilda gave Dahl the warmth he never had, has done it again with this transmutation, joyful in its razzmatazz speed and racket (ever wilder as poor Phil realizes he is trapped) but unashamedly touching both the despair and the hope which make us human. The music explodes the clever story into a big shining cloud of philosophical and moral questioning: laced with killer jokes, wickedly clever lyrics and joyfully witty choreography.
Andy Karl at its centre is a miracle of driving energy, his physical comedy irresistible from the scornful athleticism of his beginnings to his manic runs for escape or diversion (the drunk truck scene is a masterpiece of staging and lighting). And there are small things too: A kind of sigh rose from somewhere close to me in the enraptured audience at his morning line “There will be mornings when you’re utterly defeated by your laces’.
I noticed no suicide trigger warnings, though there may have been some – and honour to the Old Vic for not playing that tune – and the handling of his ‘resurrections’ from that despair are fleetingly elegant. But there is both serious feeling in the nightmare sequences which develop, and hilarity for our mental-health obsessed age in the sequence of Phil seeking help (reiki, soup, isotopes, enemas….”I dunno what I’m sayin, but this guy’s desperate and he’s payin'”.) More fun still, may I say as a once-young woman, in the sliding-doors repetition of his failed attempts at seducing Rita.
But, as I said seven years ago, even with all that individual glory it is the big leaping, revolving, singing human stew of townsfolk who turn your heart over: officials, workers, bandsmen, carnival revellers, old ladies, slobs, shmucks. The ensemble sing big joyful anthems to spring and hope and groundhogs; all the innocent human smalltownery which Phil is punished by the wise gods of myth for despising. Not many shows involve both a giant groundhog playing the drums and tearful resolution to live better. Minchin magic.
Groundhog Day runs at the Old Vic Theatre to 19 August.