There was this film you might have heard of, back in 1993, called Groundhog Day. For those living in a vacuum who know it not, it’s the story of sardonic, arrogant, detached – distressingly relatable – weatherman Phil Connors, who becomes inexplicably trapped in 2nd February, small-town Pennsylvania, forever. Or almost forever. It’s blackly comic, bleakly surreal. It’s conceptual like Vonnegut, it’s a coming-of-age story for people who are meant to have come of age already. It’s touching, it’s terrifying. It stars Bill Murray.
As such it prompts a love and loyalty so strong that just the scent on the breeze of a remake would usually have a sizeable chunk of the fanbase apoplectic with rage. I feel it myself, a little. The idea of remaking a Bill Murray film without Bill Murray seems perverse, but on the other hand, take that line of thought too far and you turn into one of those guys sitting on Twitter and frothing in all caps at the world’s failure to see that *WOMEN CAN’T BUST GHOSTS*.
I try to go with an open mind, if only to not be that guy. Some alchemy of all the talent behind the scenes seems to have kept the more trollish elements of the internet under control. Matthew Warchus, who promised a ‘brand refresh’ and a non-elitist version of the Old Vic on taking over as Artistic Director in 2014, is one of them. The script is by Danny Rubin, writer of the original screenplay. The music and lyrics for the Old Vic’s new staging are courtesy of Tim Minchin, and the Venn diagram of people who venerate Bill Murray and people who fetishise Minchin is almost 100% overlap.
I’d question that a stage adaptation has to be better than the film to justify its existence, but you’d want it to bring something different. And this does, partly because the medium feels a closer fit for the claustrophobia of what’s happening to Connors, his world narrowed down to this tiny fragment of space and time. On film, it’s harder to discard the knowledge that the camera could pan away and out from the endless Narnian winter of Punxsutawney at anytime. The boundaries on stage are real ones, with physical limits; the sense of being trapped plays out literally as an endless running-in-place, with a lot of the action taking place on travelators set into the stage, or revolving floors bringing Connors constantly back to the same he’s trying to escape from. And the ensemble musical numbers playing out in the background of Connors’ journey give a feel of the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, if ancient Greeks had been lower on chanting and higher on bluegrass and jaunty Americana.
Andy Karl is phenomenal in the lead, a Phil Connors with a more frenetic, brittle edge than the stillness of Murray’s film version. As the musical unfolds you watch his Connors spin through detached disbelief to detached hedonism and from detached and depressed to detached and suicidal, without ever feeling less attached to his arc. That’s as much thanks to the pacing and Minchin’s musical numbers – one of the best being a montage of Connors’ despairing visits to different doctors, naturopaths and professional enema-givers, who all concur that they’ve got nothing to offer him but an interest in being paid.
There are less dazzling moments, too. A song about being an eternal, peripheral love interest feels slightly superfluous despite Georgina Hagen’s flawless performance, as a reminder of what’s delivered elsewhere in the narrative to greater effect – that it’s heartbreakingly possible to feel trapped in your own life even when it’s not running on repeat. But ultimately this is a story and a staging that do everything the best sci-fi can, asking the questions it takes that context to ask. The worst and the best of what people can become when they believe their world’s godless; homeopathy, and the question of what the hell it’s for; and how to believe in the importance of bravery and compassion, even if the consequences of both will be washed away by morning – Groundhog Day takes on some of the biggest themes with a light touch, and with too much warmth for its characters to ever feel like a thought experiment.
For all of those reasons – and for the fact this might be the highest concentration of talent being pulled together on any stage anywhere at the moment – there’d be worse days to get stuck in than the one where you have tickets to Groundhog Day. Go. On repeat.
Groundhog Day at The Old Vic, The Cut, London, SE1 8EB until 17 September. Production images by Manuel Harlan. For more information and tickets please visit the website.