Old Vic Theatre, London – until 17 September 2016
MINCHIN MAGIC. ONE TO SEE AGAIN. AND AGAIN. The film by Danny Rubin gave us the expression for eternal déja-vu: Bill Murray played Phil the arrogant celebrity weatherman, sent grumbling to smalltown Punxatawney for the folksy ceremonies of February 2nd. That (as well as being my birthday!) is when the groundhog’s shadow predicts the next six weeks’ weather.
The folklore is old English: “if Candlemas day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight”. But, mysteriously condemned to wake every day to find it is still the 2nd, weatherman Phil must learn to live it again and again until he grows kinder and earns a future.
The film is clever and funny. But a musical? Well, Matilda showed that it pays to trust Tim Minchin – music and lyrics – and Matthew Warchus’ direction. And with the book reworked by Rubin, and Minchin’s quirky brilliance and fearless willingness to oompah when it’s needed, somehow the music explodes the smart little story into a big shining cloud of philosophical and moral questioning: laced with killer jokes, wickedly clever lyrics and joyfully witty choreography by Peter Darling (I have never seen a stage revolve so elegantly used). Ellen Kane co-choreographs, and also designs the intricately calculated set of tiny lighted houses and gliding walls; not to mention the wonderfully hokey smalltown winter outfits of the townsfolk.
These matter because the ensemble is really the co-star. Of course Andy Karl is quite fantastic as Phil, driving every scene with a high-energy, perfectly judged journey from furious sarcasm, through bafflement, cynicism and suicidal despair to eventual redemption . Carlyss Peer is likeable as Rita, the producer he hits on and eventually falls for. Others get solo chances: Minchin also lets rip his romantic soul in two unexpected, very beautiful songs from Georgina Hagen as Nancy the wistful one-night-stand girl and Andrew Langtree as the geeky insurance-man Ned. There is a marvellous scene with the town drunks, “Pissing, often missing” and an even better one when Phil seeks help from alternative Reiki-enema’n psychiatry healers all carolling – “I dunno what I”m sayin’, but this guy’s desperate an’ he’s payin”! “
For all that ,though, it is the big leaping, revolving, singing human stew of townsfolk who turn your heart over: officials, workers, bandsmen, carnival revellers, old ladies, slobs, shmucks. The ensemble sing big joyful anthems to spring, and hope, and groundhogs; they express all the innocent human smalltownery which Phil despises. Their magnificence makes Phil’s initial contempt stand out more strongly: “”I have been broadcasting too many years . To talk to these hicks about magical beavers!”.
Minchin playfulness romps through – I love a man who can rhyme toxin with “constipated oxen”, producer with juicer, and give a sad bimbo the reflection “No point protestin’ – cos if you look good in tight jeans that’s what they’ll want you dressed in”. The episodic repetition of Phil’s day speeds up so fast in the first half that you get dizzy, then the second half surprises you first with melancholy, and then with sulphurous darkening to rage, suicide, and a nightmare sequence of despair (with Karl flying aloft in his underwear, and uncannily bi-locating thanks to Paul Kieve’s illusion). The feelgood ending involves massed tap-dancing and a high-speed redemption involving a circling piano,a giant groundhog and a sunrise. And, dammit, a tear in the eye. Minchin magic.
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