Groundhog Day at The Old Vic

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Bear with me on this, I shall get to Tim Minchin’s new musical of the famous Bill Murray movie in a minute.

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Back in 2012, on the first day of the London Olympics we went to see the tennis. Serena Williams was playing but she was so much better than her opponent that the match was over in no time and it was actually pretty dull. Next up was Roger Federer and at first he wasn’t having to work very hard either. It was good tennis but it wasn’t anything spectacular. Then early in the second set the guy he was playing, I’m afraid I don’t remember who, started to get a few points. Then he won a game or two and Federer clearly realised that it wasn’t going to be quite the breeze he had thought it would be. At that point Roger brought his A-game and suddenly the action playing out on court was truly something to behold. It wasn’t a simple racket game anymore, it was true athletic artistry. 

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Watching Groundhog Day, currently showing at The Old Vic, was a similar experience. The first half was fun and the performances were all good but none of it was particularly special. It certainly wasn’t a touch on Matilda, the songwriter’s last stage production. 

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Then, within minutes of the curtain going up again, it was just brilliant. It was like we were watching a different production. The tone had changed, it was more poignant, more challenging, darker and suddenly a lot more moving. Unlike that tennis game though this was clearly totally deliberate on Minchin and scriptwriter Danny Rubin’s part. They hadn’t been holding back in the opening hour, they had been expertly setting the scene with a deceptively light and gently funny character piece before suddenly giving the audience a perfectly crafted wake up call. Suddenly this wasn’t just a piece about an amusing grouch stuck living out the same day over and over again, having a great time with the lack of consequence, it was a powerful tale about life and connecting with people. It was a thoughtful parable pondering anguish, frustration, disappointment and the loss of hope and then by the end it was a beautifully uplifting hymn to humanity. 

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The stage show follows the same central idea as director Harold Ramis’ 1993 film. Cynical, arrogant TV weatherman Phil Connor is sent to a Punxsutawney, a small town in Pennsylvania, to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebrations where a celebrity woodchuck predicts the date of the start of spring by looking out of a hole and either seeing his shadow or not. Frustrated by what he perceives to be the small mindedness of the locals he then gets trapped within the same twenty four hours, living key events over and over again for between eight and thirty four years depending on which nerdy website calculation you decide to go with.

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Working with Minchin from his own screenplay Rubin doesn’t just replay what was on screen. The piece has translated perfectly to the stage. It isn’t just Minchin’s deliciously catchy, irreverent and potty mouthed songs that make the difference though. The choreography is also excellent, not just with the dancing but with all the perfectly orchestrated movement. The set pieces are not based on the sets and theatre mechanics (although there are some nice tricks here) but on the way the actors dash around the space. 

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The show definitely belongs to its lead, Andy Karl, whose physicality is matched by his acting. By the end he has become a totally different character and his journey is totally believable despite the fantastical conceit. This is an ensemble show though and many other cast members stick out in their own right.

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Groundhog Day is playing at The Old Vic until September following which, if all goes well, it will transfer to Broadway where, if there is any justice, it will enjoy years of sold out shows. Tim Minchin has once again given us an audacious, captivating, bold and inspiring new musical. He may have been playing the same old tunes in his one man shows for the last few years but when you see what he has been working on you’ll understand why. I’m sure this brilliance isn’t effortless. If he keeps going like this he’ll be following Book of Mormon’s Robert Lopez and scoring Disney cartoon features by the end of the decade, which would be really interesting. Don’t wait for that though, see this while you can.

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