At the opening of Groundhog Day David Walliams leaned over to writer Tim Minchin and joked: “This better be bloody good.” He had a point: an absurd amount of expectation has heaped on Minchin’s first musical since 2010’s Matilda, a level of hype not seen since The Book of Mormon. So it’s just as well Groundhog Day is brilliant.
Under the auspices of Minchin and director Matthew Warchus this story of a TV weatherman stuck in a time-loop becomes a modern-day Dickensian morality tale, packed with bawdy humour and lyrical jousting. The first song includes the line: “Ugly bed, ugly curtains, pointless erection,” and there are countless jokes about drugs and enemas and casual sex: it's not one for young children. It’s no surprise Minchin found himself drawn to Matilda: there’s a Roald Dahl-esque flavour to his writing, the same filthy lyricism, the quick-fire one-two of pathos and bathos, the childlike meter with an adult sting in the tail.
Groundhog Day’s plot is reassuringly familiar: obnoxious celebrity meteorologist Phil Connors arrives in backwater Punxsatawney to file a report on the annual celebrations. For reasons unexplained, he begins to relive the day again and again, waking up every morning in the same bed no matter what transpired the previous night. He goes through the stages of grief: denial, anger, depression – which includes an excellent musical number in which he kills himself in various creative ways – and, finally, acceptance. For Phil, acceptance initially means enjoying the sordid possibilities of his new-found immortality, sleeping with “90 per cent” of the town’s women, and “one boy, when I was bored”.
While the 1993 film plays things fairly straight in terms of structure, Warchus revels in the possibilities opened up by a quick rewind. There are hilarious moments in which Phil repeats the same conversation over and over until he get the desired response, his exasperation growing with each retelling. Bill Murray is a hard act to follow, but Andy Karl brings a wonderfully slimy energy to the lead role, revelling in the “evil” moments but delivering the emotional feels when required. He’s the magnetic centre of a stage that’s perpetually in flux, with the furniture constantly being twirled and disassembled by the bouncy ensemble. The staging is clever as well as frenetic, especially the moments when Phil appears to leave the stage – or, in one case, electrocute himself in a bathtub – only to magically appear back in his bed.
New musicals virtually always struggle to create instantly memorable songs, and Groundhog Day doesn’t really buck the trend, with the tunes tending to act as vehicles for Minchin’s lyrics rather than pieces that shine independently. There are also moments when the sheer level of sound and movement becomes a little incoherent, with the words difficult to make out over the general cacophony. The second half is allowed more breathing room, which is especially evident during an exceptional song by relatively minor character Nancy, who fleshes out her role as the town’s token hottie. It’s a brilliant, poignant change of pace, both humanising and humorous.
It’s an endlessly creative piece of musical theatre, one that lives up to all the hype. It will doubtless earn a West End and Broadway transfer, running for an eternity of performances, which is rather appropriate, when you think about it.