Phil Willmott

Review: GROUNDHOG DAY at the Old Vic

Groundhog Day Grab yourself some tickets while there's still a few left for GROUNDHOG DAY at the Old Vic, the new musical by the team behind MATILDA. It's very likely the whole limited run will sell out.

The show is closely adapted from the beloved 1993 American film of the same name, written and directed by Harold Ramis, in which Bill Murray stars as Phil Connors, a cynical TV weatherman. He begins the story full of loathing of himself, his job and the little back-water town where he broadcasts. He considers his most humiliating task is to report from the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where locals believe an early spring can be predicted if a ground hog sees his shadow.

Connors is cursed to endure living the same day over and over again until he learns to recognise the positivity and potential that 24 hours hold. The focus of this journey of self-discovery is the daily repetition of his attempts to seduce his female producer, which only happens once he learns to respect himself and her.

Although there's a magical element to all this the story never dwells on the nature, meaning and origins of the curse that's condemning Phil to keep reliving Groundhog Day but there is an internal logic to it all; for instance he can retain the knowledge that he learns from each repetition, he doesn't gain weight or age and he soon discovers that suicide is futile as he simply wakes up the next morning at the start of another re-run.

All great musicals need a justification for adding songs to the original and this movie plot actually benefits from numbers which both characterise the townsfolk collectively and allows for the introspection a solo song can bring. The GH songs possess all the wit and skewered perspective of composer/lyricist/comedian Tim Minchin at his very best. At the interval I feared this would be the latest London musical to have an agreeable but unexceptional score. However Act 2 delivers a number of great tunes and lyrical sentiments that, appropriately, I'd gladly hear again and again.

Despite the popularity of turning films into musicals they're notoriously difficult to get right. If they're too visually like the movie then we may as well stay at home with the DVD but stray too far off course and you risk alienating the fans. It seems to me that this team have got it just right.

Director Matthew Warchus and designer Rob Howell develop their toy box staging of MATILDA with a set framed by dolls house scale buildings and the complex series of interconnecting revolving floors whisk building-block components of each setting in and out of view, augmented with ever present winter themes drawn from weather maps and crisp, clear, cold days in the countryside.

If you're a regular West End theatre goer you'll already know what an extraordinary talented choreographer Peter Darling is from his work on Billy Elliot and Matilda. On Groundhog he excels himself by once again translating the movement of working people into exquisite dance that stays true to the physicality of their ordinariness yet seems to perfectly express their spirit. This is exactly what's needed here and the town of Punxsutawney becomes a character in itself.

It's a shame that we've had to import a leading man from Broadway with the necessary charisma and stamina to play the demanding central role who must carry every single scene in this musical. Although I must confess I can't think of a Brit actor who could do so as adeptly Broadway's Andy Karl. I've admired his work in New York, especially in the title of Rocky the musical, and it's great to have him dazzling London audiences.

Great work from all concerned, finally London has a new musical to be proud of.

Groundhog Day