The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ – The Musical continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London until 9 September.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I was slightly depressed to learn, on entering the Menier Chocolate Factory for the musical version of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, that Sue Townsend’s eponymous diarist turned 50 this year (on 2 April, to be precise). My spirits were quickly lifted, though, as soon as the show started and I was instantly whisked back to my own teenage years.
The creative duo of Jake Brunger (book/lyrics) and Pippa Cleary (music/lyrics), with the help of director Luke Sheppard and MD Alex Parker, have served up an interpretation of Townsend’s hilarious book that feels utterly faithful to the original and duly steeped in 1980s culture – a crazy time when Britain was ruled by a female Prime Minister, a celebrity lived in the White House, and women struggled for equal pay…
This wonderful show began its life in Leicester – birthplace of Mr Adrian Albert Mole – and after some revisions and tightening up has made it to London and the Menier Chocolate Factory. The hit rate here is second to none, and this production has all the hallmarks of a show that is surely destined to transfer.
The cast, for one, does an exemplary job of bringing Townsend’s colourful characters to life. The kids are bursting with confidence and are ridiculously talented. It’s triple cast, and at my show all four gave faultless performances: Connor Davies as the school bully Barry, Amir Wilson as best friend (and love rival) Nigel, Asha Banks as Pandora and Benjamin Lewis as Adrian.
Lewis is an incredible talent – he gives a funny, touching, at time heartbreaking performance that had me on the edge of tears of both joy and sadness.
His Adrian is a troubled soul who’s confused by the incomprehensible world of adults, bothered by spots and inflicted with unwanted public erections, and Lewis embodies the role wholeheartedly. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that he IS Adrian Mole.
His youthful co-stars also steal the limelight and are as scarily talented. All are (already) veterans of the stage: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Annie, Les Mis, Matilda, Bumblescratch, Oliver! and The Sound of Music are among some of the shows listed in these short but packed biogs.
The supporting cast, while much longer in the tooth, is truly experienced. Kelly Price and Dean Chisnall are perfect as the imperfect parents Pauline and George; John Hopkins steals every scene he’s in as either the lothario neighbour Mr Lucas or headteacher Mr Scruton; and Lara Denning is hilarious as the tarty Doreen Slater.
My favourites, though, are Barry James and Gay Soper as the curmudgeonly old duffer Bert Baxter and Grandma Mole. When not in their pensioner roles, these two stalwarts of the West End are dressed in school uniform and keep up with the kids in all the dance moves. Sheer joy!
Musically and lyrically, it’s also a delight. Brunger and Cleary may not have given us many memorable tunes, but the music all serves its purpose well, and the set pieces – notably ‘Royal Wedding’ and the side-splittingly funny ‘Nativity’ – are electrifying. It’s the kind of score that I’m sure will grow on you with subsequent listens.
And all credit to director Sheppard for those brilliant set-pieces – he doesn’t let up for one second. With the help of Tom Rogers’ ever-shifting set (and the dutiful cast pushing it around) the action is non-stop, pinballing between Adrian’s bedroom, the kitchen, the classroom and various other locations seamlessly.
For all the hijinks and hilarity, though, there is, at the core of the show, a lovely, affectionate story about a boy and his friends coming of age and dealing with broken families and life in Thatcher’s Britain.
It’s nothing new, but as with Townsend’s books, it captures the humanity and humour of real life in a way that makes you sympathise with all the characters. They’re not grotesques, like the ogres in Roald Dahl – these are fully-rounded creations, and the musical serves them well, helping to flesh them out in three dimensions.
Adrian Mole is the perfect family choice, but also one that will touch anyone who’s been through puberty. It’s got a sharp edge to it, too, with plenty to keep the adults amused. And it would make a great Christmas show, so fingers crossed it has a life beyond the Menier.
Tickets for The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ – The Musical are available HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary on making Adrian Mole into a musical – Interview