BWW Review: GROUNDHOG DAY, Old Vic, 17 August 2016

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It's déjà vu all over again, as the Matilda dream team reconvenes to bring the beloved Bill Murray-starring 1993 movie to stage. Serious expectations, then, but you wouldn't know it from this fearless, fleet-footed and impressively cohesive show - destined to be a smash hit because of, not despite, its glorious idiosyncrasies.

Joining the niche but burgeoning metaphysical romcom genre (spearheaded by Constellations), the show sticks fairly closely to the original Harold Ramis film - hardly surprising, as screenwriter Danny Rubin is on book duty. Once more, jaded weatherman Phil Connors finds himself trapped in the folksy town of Punxsutawney, where every February locals gather to discover whether or not the groundhog will predict an early spring. Phil is caught in a purgatorial time loop, forced to play out that same day again and again, until he finds a path to redemption.

It's a tricky premise to communicate in pithy theatrical fashion, but director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling's meticulous repetitions illustrate it vividly, while conjuring the rhythms of "small-town USA" life which become increasingly nightmarish to Phil, and hilarious to us - a manic balancing act that allows for an impressive variation of tone.

That, too, is the winning quality of Tim Minchin's luminous score. There are no hummable breakout hits, rather a phenomenally detailed musical through-line where every number is in direct service to story and character. Multiple styles are referenced, from mellow bluegrass and mournful country to upbeat jazz and an extraordinarily dark suicide sequence set to a nihilistic rock ballad. It's funny until it's devastating, and then funny again.

The depth and high-speed wit of the lyrics mean it will - appropriately enough - reward countless repeat trips, if only to catch more subversive, razor-sharp one-liners or appreciate the rich layering engendered by each reprise and variation. A prime example is the anodyne jingle sung by insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, in turn irritating, sinister, surreal, haunting.

The colouring of a familiar world by the protagonist's mood extends to some wonderfully expressionistic moments, from the walls of his chintzy B&B room (Rob Howell's symphony of clashing prints) lit hellish red by Hugh Vanstone as the clock radio heralds yet another repeat, to atonal music cues heralding rising panic - every nuance conveyed by a stirring orchestra. But perhaps most memorable is the well-drilled company breaking into a feverish tap number that suggests the inexorable ticking of the clock.

There's also wonderful inventiveness in this staging, from propulsive revolves to winkingly lo-fi versions of the film's car chases, blizzards and comic jump cuts. The team makes a virtue of the show's theatricality, rather than hiding it behind soulless, cinematic sheen - Cursed Child-esque astonishing stage magic (impressive illusions by Paul Kieve) meets the giddy playfulness of The 39 Steps. Howell's set is framed by cutouts of cosy houses, almost like a pop-up book, with Phil the Grinch invading Americana Whoville.

But a show of this structure is hugely dependent upon its leading man, and American actor Andy Karl delivers a star-making turn. Where Bill Murray was laconic, detached and casually misanthropic, Karl's Phil is a sharp-suited, sleazy asshole, spitting out sarcastic cruelties in between Xanax top-ups and every inch the disdainful metropolitan physically recoiling from "talking to hicks about magical beavers". His romantic overtures are more overtly predatory, and more evidently the overcompensation of a directionless charmer whose surface success is ebbing away.

Karl is astonishingly versatile, whether embracing no-consequences criminal hedonism, making a five-course meal out of a French poem, delivering bald-faced pick-up lines, or frantically trying to recreate a perfect moment. He's a strong, expressive singer and an inspired physical comedian - his silent reactions to the daft exchanges between two soused barflies being a highlight - and the vulnerabilities he gradually reveals feel earned, intricate and honest.

His love interest has more to do this time around, and Carlyss Peer provides warm, clear-voiced support as capable and independent-minded producer Rita. She's gifted a cracking number by Minchin that explores the inherent contradictions of 21st-century romance - women rebelling against Barbies and fairy tales, demanding respect and equality, yet conditioned to crave a strong prince sweeping them off their feet.

The ensemble otherwise operates as a unit, with multiple characters sketched in, though there are spotlight moments: Andrew Langtree's Ned revealing the poignant truth behind his insurance patter, and Georgina Hagen beginning the second act with a riotously meta song about her role as a diversion on some man's journey and the burden of the male gaze (Olympics commentators: take note).

There are more Minchin touches in a merciless dissection of alternative medicine - a familiar target from his beat poem "Storm" - and thoughtful exploration of depression and despair. Phil may be gifted with godlike power (becoming a "forecaster" in more ways than one), but it's the small acts of courage that take real strength: finding the will to get up in the morning and face every day, even when your choices are limited.

The quiet desperation of the small-town barflies, trapped by circumstance rather than magic, feels pertinent in the current political climate - Phil accidentally summing up their experience via his own: "What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?" Resonant, too, is Phil's quest for peace via the surrender of egotistical self to community, and the townspeople's stoic faith in a brighter future, even if it takes a while to arrive.

Though sweet and hopeful, the climax steers clear of saccharine sentimentality. Love is the great redeemer, but it's a messy series of contradictions: found in specific details and a rush of feeling, in the accumulation of shared experiences and the shock of a world made fresh. It's a very Groundhog Day conclusion: that the evocation of the familiar can be the boldest thing of all.

Groundhog Day at the Old Vic until 17 September

Watch Tim Minchin's "Storm" below

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From This Author Marianka Swain