Groundhog Day review – stellar set, score and performances are guaranteed entertainment

Old Vic, London
A revival of the musical at the same venue where it premiered combines clever staging, impeccable performances and Tim Minchin’s lyrical brilliance into a reassuringly familiar and enjoyable package

This musical, of a man trapped inside one day on repeat, runs the risk of living its own groundhog day. It will be familiar to many from the Bill Murray film on which it is based, and also from its original run, seven years ago at the same theatre.

The story of arrogant TV weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl), who gets stuck in backwater America reporting on an annual “Groundhog Day” event, is indubitably a throwback: even its book is written by the screenwriter of the 1993 film, Danny Rubin. The big surprise is that it still lifts us with its comedy, and thrills us with its theatrical invention.

So much of that is down to Tim Minchin. His music is fine if relentless, with songs coming thick and fast at first, none of the tunes memorable. But his lyrics are a blast, zinging with clever, quick wit. The show glows with bursts of comic brilliance as a result, and slightly better songs in the second half, such as Playing Nancy (sung by Eve Norris), about the woes of being a single, small-town woman, and If I Had My Time Again.

There is also a bewitching performance from Karl, reprising the role of the anchorman, who really is a throwback to another era. Karl makes a more predatory Phil than Murray did, with impeccable comic timing. Tanisha Spring is winning as his producer, Rita, and their spiky chemistry fuels the romance. “They told me he was an asshole – and he is,” she sings.

Tanisha Spring as Rita and Karl as Phil.
Spiky chemistry … Tanisha Spring as Rita and Karl as Phil. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Directed by Matthew Warchus, who also worked with Minchin on Matilda, the production uses overt, flamboyant theatricality to its advantage. Rob Howell’s set creates the hallucinatory effect of a recurring dream, with 19th-century troupes in top hats and a high-kicking band with pompoms (choreography by Lizzi Gee). Howell uses miniaturisation to brilliant effect too: a drunken late-night car ride goes from a life-size chase on stage to an aerial view with model cars.

Rubin’s story has a thudding moral lesson at its core – “Isn’t it a wonderful life when you’re a good person?” – which is neither deep nor convincing. Phil becomes boringly vanilla after going through his entertaining cycles of hedonism and hopelessness, so it is an achievement that Karl keeps us on his side.

Rather like the Old Vic’s returning production of A Christmas Carol, this revival is hardly daring programming. But it is guaranteed entertainment and will no doubt get bums on seats. A comfy pair of slippers then, but ones we enjoy slipping into.

At the Old Vic, London, until 19 August


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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