It’s a big week for up and coming British musical theatre writers JAKE BRUNGER and PIPPA CLEARY, with their adaptation of Sue Townsend’s best-selling book The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ opening in its premiere production at Leicester Curve (new artistic director Nikolai Foster has declared Curve’s intention to be ‘the British home of new musical theatre writing’).
Appropriately set in 1980s Leicester, the story follows the daily dramas and misadventures of Adrian’s adolescent life. With dysfunctional parents, ungrateful elders, a growing debt to school bully Barry Kent, unrequited love and an unruly pimple on his chin, life is hard for a misunderstood intellectual who is only 13 ¾…
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ was Townsend’s first novel, published by Penguin Books in 1982. It has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, been translated into 30 languages, and spawned seven sequel Adrian Mole novels. The novels have previously been adapted for the stage, radio and television.
Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary (music and lyrics) met at Bristol University, where they were studying Drama and Music respectively. Their musicals together include Jet Set Go! (Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Theatre 503 and Jermyn Street Theatre), The Great British Soap Opera (Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Jermyn Street Theatre) and Red Riding Hood (Singapore Repertory Theatre).
They also wrote the music and lyrics for The Snow Gorilla (Rose Theatre Kingston) and in June 2013 they were the first British writers to be accepted onto the Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriters Project in Chicago. Their original new musical Prodigy for National Youth Music Theatre opens in August 2015 at St James Theatre in London and they are also writing a new stage musical adaptation of Treasure Island for Singapore Repertory Theatre, which will open in autumn 2015.
Their songs are regularly performed in cabarets and concerts across London (they also wrote the theme song for West End Bares 2014).
Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland caught up with them during rehearsals:
So how have rehearsals gone?
JAKE: It’s been something of a small military operation really. There are three sets of children for the roles of Barry, Nigel and Pandora and there are four Adrian Moles! Every week they have to go to school for 15 hours, so each set in turn has either been watching, rehearsing, or at school. It doesn’t feel like there is any time out, one group finishes working, and then the next one jumps up straight away.
Our director Luke Sheppard has been so great with the kids though. He is an assistant director on Matilda the Musical, and we have not seen a single child get upset. The young members of the company deserve credit too, they are so mature and very professional.
PIPPA: There was a long audition process for the children that began last October, so they got to know the material very well over that period, but the rehearsal weeks are still intensive. It’s been all about the staging (the company is also moving all the set around) and getting used to working with all the other actors.
How do you think the role of Adrian Mole compares to other major musical parts for children like Matilda and Billy Elliot?
PIPPA: Aside of the dancing element to a part like Billy Elliot, I think it’s a bigger role. The concept of the show is that Adrian is writing in his diary and everything taking place is happening through his eyes. The actors playing Adrian are only offstage for a total of ten minutes – otherwise that concept doesn’t work.
JAKE: I agree, Adrian is the ‘Hamlet’ of child musical theatre roles. He appears in nearly every song, up to 13 of around 16 numbers.
How difficult was it to find the right young performers for the production?
PIPPA: We were involved in 90 per cent of the auditions. Sometimes it was tough because those who auditioned were just at the point where their voices were breaking, or they were brilliant but not quite the right age. But after seeing 450 children, we are so happy with the final 13 children.
JAKE: What was key was that the kids were individuals, we didn’t want to create an identikit cast. The role of Adrian is open to interpretation, and we felt there was no reason why the actors playing him couldn’t be different looks and personalities. We didn’t have any preconceptions.
How have you both been feeling in the run-up to opening night?
JAKE: During rehearsals Pippa and I have felt relatively calm. We’ve worked on the script for three years – there have been two full readings and a workshop –and we are very happy with it. I think everyone involved has also been also feeling that way, everyone is working so hard, but it’s also a very happy company.
It’s been great to see the songs and scenes come together and the different interpretations. Acting alongside all the different sets of kids helps to keep the piece fresh for the adult performers as well.
How did the project come about in the first place?
JAKE: I had written a play for the Royal Court Young Writers Programme, and the then artistic director at Leicester Curve, Paul Kerryson, said he would love to produce it in the studio. I then mentioned the Adrian Mole musical to him and he thought it was a great idea. He went off to mention it to the board of directors and we went to check out what was happening with the rights to the book. We discovered they expired five month later. Before we knew it, it was January 2012 and we were in the café at the Curve, presenting ten minutes of the musical to Sue Townsend and her husband and son.
She told us to go and write the rest of it. There was no formal signing off, she wanted us to do it. I think she saw we were from a new generation of writers that weren’t born when the book was first published [Jake and Pippa are both in their late twenties]. She liked that youth and energy.
Sadly, author Sue Townsend passed away just under a year ago, but I know she was heavily involved in the project. What was it like working with her?
PIPPA: Sue was so brilliant. We had worked on other projects, where big companies were involved, and you couldn’t change a word without having to go through lots of channels. She was a dream, really accommodating about the script. Working with her was a joy. By the end of the writing, she didn’t always know which lines were hers, which was a real compliment to Jake. She would question a line and we would have to say, ‘but you wrote that Sue’. We were so lucky.
JAKE: Five weeks before Sue died, we were all sitting around her kitchen table, chatting about Jeremy Kyle and Justin Bieber, real mundane celebrity gossip. She wanted to know about the kind of everyday topics people would be chatting about when waiting around in the queue for the post office. That’s what interested her.
The story is set in Leicester in the early 1980s in Leicester, but do you feel the themes are just a relevant today?
PIPPA: All the things Adrian writes about [spots, first love, insecurity, ambition, dysfunctional families] are all the normal things that teenagers worry about. Our young cast will be having the same insecurities that the characters they are playing are experiencing. It’s very real for them too.
JAKE: That’s why I am so pleased that we have done the show with children, not adults in their late 20s pretending to wear school uniform. There is a realism to the show as a result.
The setting has vitally remained in the 1980s, but you haven’t let that influence the score. Tell me more…
PIPPA: It is a period piece, but we didn’t want to alienate a new generation coming to the book for the very first time. So there are some very different styles used: a patriotic wedding march for the Royal Wedding (fortunately the younger members of the audience will be able to relate to this, thanks to Kate and Will!), there’s a high-octane Latin seduction number when Adrian sees his mum having an affair and a Disney-like ballad when he is falling in love.
What is important is that the score has got its own very British style which is specific to us.
JAKE: Some people writing new British musicals have been brought up on Glee and big numbers like ‘Defining Gravity’ from Wicked that lend themselves to an American style of singing. We strive to write in a British voice, to create a successful British musical by British writers set in Britain.
You both attended Bristol University and it was there you also met director Luke Sheppard. Was it immediately clear to you both that you would be great collaborators?
PIPPA: Not really! Luke and I were involved in a project for the Edinburgh Fringe, I was usually the musical director and Luke directed. The idea was to stage something new so Jake was asked to write a script. After the first couple of sessions, I wasn’t at all convinced that we could work together.
It’s a great tip for every writer though, because having a collaborator means you start learning to work alongside other creatives and facing up to criticism as well as praise. It was great to learn these lessons at university.
Seven years later you are still collaborating, what is your working relationship like?
JAKE: We have a real level of shorthand now, although we still argue!
PIPPA: We have a bit of a brother/sister-love/hate relationship sometimes. It can be exhausting!
JAKE: But there is a real spontaneity and freshness about the way we work. When we begin writing, we scat at the piano and riff on the lyrics. Our instincts are quite sharp now. We record the sessions and sometimes that early material stays.
Being writers of new British musical theatre is not easy, fame and fortune hardly come overnight. What gives you your drive and motivation?
JAKE: Sue Townsend saw that our motivation for writing this musical wasn’t to do with us thinking ‘let’s do this because it will be a hit’. I think we really love creating new work, it’s our life really. It’s about creating the work the way you want to at the time you want to create it. You can’t wait for it to come to you.
* The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ continues at Leicester Curve until 4 April, opening night is Tuesday 17 March.