Groundhog Day has always had its sights set on Broadway and the West End. Director Matthew Warchus describes the 10-week run at the Old Vic as “a kind of test drive”. The show has passed that test. There is no gainsaying its accomplished dazzle. There is, though, a question about its imaginative centre.
The dazzle is no surprise. Groundhog, which has music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, has been made by the peerless team who created Matilda. Alongside Warchus are choreographer Peter Darling and designer Rob Howell. What’s more, the script is by Danny Rubin, writer of the 1993 film, whose title supplied the UK with a new phrase and a new beast: how many Brits knew before then what a groundhog was?
After a slow start, and some inevitable but wearing repetition, Warchus’s production cleverly teases out the paradox that sees a professional forecaster stuck in a recurring past. A sneering weatherman is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual prediction, by groundhog, of the start of spring. Trapped in a time loop, he lives the same day over and over – until he amends it and himself.
Andy Karl is strong in the role created on screen by Bill Murray. He is maddeningly up himself and down on everyone else, attractively fluent, manipulative, nimble, often bellowing and sometimes touchingly hoarse. He has the great help of Minchin’s lyrics, which are some of the best around: spry, disconcerting, acerbically rhymed, though over-amplification means they can’t always be heard. Our hero “has not a bad word to say, about small towns./ Per se.” He finds himself in a B&B with “dried flowers, damp towels. Shallow talk, deep snow.” There is an enema song; a song against pink dolls. A sharp lament about being a sidekick, in life and in musicals, is sweetly delivered by Georgina Hagen.
The stage embodies the time-loop dilemma. It becomes a hyper-bright kaleidoscope, flooded with snow light by Hugh Vanstone, which daily breaks up and re-forms. The setting is askew. The frowsty bedroom in which our antihero wakes up to the same sounds and sights each morning is in the midst of a perky town. Miniature houses, their windows lit up, are piled wonkily on the tops of poles, and spread out in a frieze. Big use is made of a revolve: perfect for a story that is on a loop. A massive groundhog saunters through the action. He (or she?) provides the hero with his daily setback, by thwacking him on the head. In a lovely moment, the creature becomes not merely a forecaster but a maker of weather, shovelling snow on to a tiny toy truck in which the news crew are trying to leave town.
Yet for all the ingenuity, the core of the evening is cautious and familiar. This is a come-home-to-Kansas story and an It’s A Wonderful Life story. You know you are redeemed when you are less cynical and less urban. Heaven turns out to be what was at first considered hell: non-stop cheeriness and a lot of woolly hats.
Matilda proved that Minchin’s most exciting mode is anarchic. It may have been written for children but it is a sophisticated account of what it means to be free. It had to do with standing apart from the crowd. Groundhog Day is more interested in fitting in. You can hear it in the music. There were belt-out, standout songs in Matilda. Here the numbers sound (musically, not verbally) as if they might have been put out by the local radio station. Some bluegrass, some rock, some ballads. The difficulty is not so much that none of the tunes are memorable: not one is disturbing. One viewing of Groundhog Day will be enough for me. It is not – or not yet – the theatrical evening I would choose to live over and over.