Groundhog Day


"An instant classic."

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Something extraordinary has happened at the Old Vic. A much-loved, ingeniously funny and clever Hollywood film has made a triumphant theatrical rebirth – in a show that looks, on first viewing, equal to, and perhaps better than, the movie.

Director Matthew Warchus, choreographer Peter Darling and Tim Minchin, the Australian comedian turned musical maestro, enjoyed a runaway success with Matilda: the Musical. But their latest venture is in a different league: sophisticated, smart and more adult in theme.

Does it provide the same quantity of standout, sing-at-home numbers that we saw in Matilda? Hard to say at first sitting – but what is clear is that Groundhog Day is as funny and as touching as you could wish, and it lands with the confidence of an instant classic.

For those not acquainted with the 1993 film, the bare-bones conceit is so simple that it could be scribbled on the back of a postcard from the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This is where, every February (true fact), thousands of people converge to see whether the resident celebrity woodchuck will detect the coming of spring, or decide that winter is going to stick around a bit longer.

Bumptious Pittsburg weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray in the screen version) is sent to cover the event, and finds the job very much beneath him. Then he gets trapped by a blizzard, marooned among the provincials he sneers at, and finds himself forced to relive the same day over and over, as if some unseen hand is hitting the replay button. The film was so successful that the phrase “groundhog day” entered the lexicon, a go-to description for feeling you’re stuck in rut.

Minchin and co, with original screenwriter Danny Rubin supplying the book, follow the film’s structure. Yet from the start, when Punxsutawney-ites gather in winter woollies, clutching sparklers to hymn a hopeful chorus, yearning for the sun, the theatrical departure points are as clear as they are exciting.

Andy Karl’s Phil is younger and better-groomed than Murray, but just as insufferable. He sing-talks to us, as he rouses himself in his B&B bedroom (a grotto-like contraption courtesy of designer Rob Howell), summing up the place in snappy, throwaway lines that have a jazz-like lilt: (“Shallow talk/ deep snow”). The set is toy-town dinky, with miniaturised houses on poles, and a festooning of whitened townscapes – to bring home the way that Phil goes on an entertaining journey from two-dimensional hog to fully rounded human.

There’s barely any let-up in the music, the movement or the scene-shifting on the revolving stage. Minchin uses repetition and sustained notes as a means of deepening the levels of irony, every dab of a refrain contributing to the mood, which includes funk, soul, rock ’n’ roll, bluegrass and Country and Western.

Like the best stage farce, what starts slowly soon picks up speed. The lyrics are spry, ever alert to a gag, and there’s ample humour in the first half, especially when a panicked Phil seeks out clueless New Age health gurus: “Usually I’d advisa ya / to try this tranquilisa”, runs one neat prescription.

Realising that his actions are free from consequences, Phil becomes a nightmare personality – trying to chase the ladies, above all his likeable, kindly location producer, Rita (here a sensational Carlyss Peer). But his bid to refine his seduction techniques results in a full-blown existential crisis. If we emerge finally – with him – in a place of hard-won serenity, it’s not before the darkest comedy and a moment when the ensemble reachs a point of wild hallucinogenic delirium in a protracted tap-dance routine.

With this beacon of hope for new musical theatre, the Old Vic is finally on an incredible roll.

Author: Dominic Cavendish

“Fantastically witty”

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Musicals based on hit movies are two-a-penny, but this one comes with an exceptional pedigree. Not only is the book written by Danny Rubin, who scripted the original 1993 film. With Tim Minchin as composer and lyricist, Matthew Warchus as director and Peter Darling as choreographer, the show also reunites the team behind Matilda the Musical. The result is fantastically smart, clever and witty, but I have to say it left my heart untouched.

The big question is what the musical can add to the movie, especially since Rubin’s book adheres closely to the film. Once again, we see an arrogant weatherman, Phil Connors, reluctantly travelling to Punxsutawney to report the annual groundhog day ceremony. Hicksville, however, turns into a form of purgatory when Phil finds himself trapped in a time loop where it is always 2 February. Initial hysteria yields to hedonism as Phil realises that if there is no tomorrow he can do whatever he likes today. Slowly, he grasps that his one hope to escape lies through self-improvement and forging a real relationship with his producer, Rita.

The extra ingredient supplied by the musical is a dynamic theatricality. Countless dramatists, including Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill and Alan Ayckbourn, have exploited the possibilities of repetition, and Warchus’s production plays extravagant variations on the theme. “There’s nothing more depressing than small-town USA,” sings Phil, and it is genuinely funny to see him daily encountering the same marching bands, buttonholing locals and ugly wallpaper. Rob Howell has designed an ingenious set, in which a vista of Identikit villas opens up to reveal a dingy boardinghouse bedroom. Paul Kieve adds to the theatricality with excellent illusions. My favourite shows Phil apparently electrocuting himself in a bath only to pop up seconds later in his familiar bed.

Minchin’s songs breezily add to the satire on small-town life. At one point, as he finds himself undergoing humiliating hospital tests, Phil cries: “Who needs enemas with friends like this?” But the action, especially in the first half, is so fast and furious that the songs have little room to breathe. When things slow down, the numbers, with titles such as Hope and If I Had My Time Again, become amiably generic. It’s a score that serves the plot perfectly, but it’s not exactly one you ache to hear again.

If, however, one thought Bill Murray in the movie was an impossible act to follow, one reckoned without Broadway star Andy Karl who plays Phil. Karl exudes all the self-regard of the minor TV star and sneering contempt for a town of “hicks and magical beavers” and, even more than Murray, endows the man with a sexual swagger: escaping from an orgy clad in little but a Vicuña maxi-coat, he greets Rita as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Karl strikes me as the natural successor to Broadway’s Kevin Kline in that he has the capacity to be physically dashing and funny at the same time. Carlyss Peer does all she can with the less rewarding role of Rita and, in a large ensemble, Georgina Hagen as the lonesome Nancy and Andrew Langtree as an insurance-selling goofball are standouts.

As with the movie, the appeal of the musical is that it offers a redemption myth similar to that provided by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. Its ultimate homage to the virtues of small-town life also has uncanny echoes of the recently revived Allegro by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But while the show is high-grade fun, I enjoyed it more for its dazzling theatrical expertise than for its much thinner emotional content.

Author: Michael Billington

"A profound musical that wears its profundity lightly"

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Tim Minchin has written that unlikely thing, a musical about metaphysics. It’s also a genuinely fresh take on déjà vu. The source material is impeccable — who can forget the effortlessly entertaining Nineties film and the sublime Bill Murray? But this adaptation has its own dizzying brand of joy, as well as elements of real darkness.

It’s the 2nd of February and TV weatherman Phil Connors is in Punxsutawney — a place he regards as embarrassingly drab — to report on the annual appearance of the local groundhog, famed for its ability to predict when Spring will come. Phil is no fan of small-town life or this lame tradition, and only the presence of fizzy young producer Rita promises to make the trip bearable.

Yet instead of getting lucky he finds himself trapped in a time loop, condemned to stumble through the same day again and again — at first an opportunity for mischief, and later a chance for redemption.

The book is the work of Danny Rubin, who wrote the original film script, and it has the same nerveless mix of fantasy and misanthropy. But while the movie’s spirit is intact, Minchin packs in a multitude of new jokes, and his score inhabits half a dozen different idioms, ranging from country and western to anthemic rock.

Director Matthew Warchus matches him for wit, with Rob Howell’s clever designs integral to the show’s fluency and ingenuity. There are some superb illusions courtesy of Paul Kieve and nimble choreography by Peter Darling.

As Phil, Andy Karl does the seemingly impossible by banishing memories of Bill Murray. Well, almost. He oozes star quality, managing to be poisonously sarcastic, charmingly vulnerable, and charismatic even in moments of melancholy.

Carlyss Peer is a satisfyingly forthright Rita, and while there aren’t many meaty roles around them Andrew Langtree impresses as maddening insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, Phil's tragically unmemorable high-school classmate.

People who say they don’t like musicals tend to complain that they’re repetitive. Here, gloriously, that’s the whole point. We're in what feels like the heart of Samuel Beckett territory, albeit with a salutary hint of A Christmas Carol. Not for nothing did Stephen Sondheim contemplate adapting the film for the stage, savouring the dramatic possibilities of its 'themes and variations'.

Literary boffins may also delight in the detail that the 2nd of February was the birthday of James Joyce, that great chronicler of fateful repetitions, for whom Phil's question 'What if there is no tomorrow?' would have seemed intriguingly resonant.

Such references certainly won't be lost on the show's creators, who revel in the uncanny proximity of the serious and the chucklesome. This is a profound musical, but it wears its profundity lightly. 

Eloquent about despair but also relentlessly amusing, Groundhog Day is a treat.

Author: Henry Hitchings

The Times

“Laugh-out-loud British humour with American razzmatazz”

Daily Mail

“Enviable energy”

Awards and nominations

  • Drama Desk Awards 2017
    Outstanding Actor in a Musical - WINNER
  • Olivier Awards 2017
    Best New Musical - WINNER
  • Olivier Awards 2017
    Best Actor in a Musical - WINNER
  • Olivier Awards 2017
    Best Director
  • Olivier Awards 2017
    Best Set Design
  • Olivier Awards 2017
    Best Costume Design
  • Olivier Awards 2017
    Best Lighting Design
  • Olivier Awards 2017
    Best Theatre Choreographer
  • Olivier Awards 2017
    Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical


A triumphant opening for Groundhog Day – a production of dazzling theatricality

When Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors finds himself stranded in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual emergence of a groundhog – which locals believe helps to predict the weather – he is snowed in by a blizzard.

Initially dismayed to be trapped in such a provincial place, he is soon shocked to learn that due to some mystical, and perhaps cosmic, quirk he is to be forced to relive his most recent day over and over again.

Connors moves from horror to excitement. He explores the possibilities of behaviour without consequence, charming local women yet alienating his female producer Rita who acts as his moral anchor. It is she who ultimately offers a chance of redemption – and escape – from his recurring nightmare.