By my reckoning 2019 marks Adrian Mole’s 50th birthday so it’s entirely appropriate that a musical based on his teenage years should have just reached the Ambassador’s Theatre. I have followed Mr Mole through his various incarnations since the early 80s – I think I initially came across him on the radio. I recall devouring the first book more or less at a sitting and then there was the TV series with theme tune by Ian Dury and Mrs Mole played by Julie Walters (who inexplicably morphed into Lulu in Series 2!) Later variations showed him as an increasingly despondent adult (and Alison Steadman was mum) but it is at the pubescent stage that we recall him most fondly. It is to this incarnation (and indeed the original era) that the stage show returns. Here is my review:
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 133/4 is not actually that new a piece having started life in Adrian’s (and original author Sue Townsend’s) home city of Leicester at the Curve Theatre. Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s adaptation of the first book in the Mole saga is pretty faithful to the original in terms of content and of tone and together with director Luke Sheppard they have been developing and refining the show since the first production in 2015. Their care, attention to detail and, yes, love for what they have been doing, clearly shows in the end result.
Adrian is still the same bemused and beleaguered “intellectual” whose parents are in the middle of splitting up but is probably more interested in writing poetry to send to the BBC, mooning after Pandora (“I adore ya” – quick nod to Ian Dury?) Braithwaite and avoiding the attentions of school bully Barry Kent…oh yes, and measuring a certain part of his anatomy. Other regular characters from the book also appear – best friend and potential love rival Nigel, Adrian’s opinionated Gran, the next door neighbour Mr “Creep” Lucas, disgusting beetroot-sandwich eating OAP Bert Baxter and so on. Even the dog gets in on the act in the guise of a nifty puppet created out of the ink-splattered pages of the protagonist’s diary. Thus if you’ve read the book(s) you’ll be well satisfied.
Even if you haven’t it is a simple enough tale to follow and some ingenious production ideas keep the whole thing rolling along nicely. Various hidden compartments allow the set to be swiftly changed to diverse internal and external locations and costumes, setting and props are a pure nostalgia fest for those of us who lived through the early 80s. There is also some particular fun to be had from the adults in the cast doubling as Adrian’s classmates complete with aged wrinkles, moustaches and hairy legs.
There was a tendency towards the ramshackle which was entirely in keeping with the mood of the production and which actually added to the fun. In fact I’m actually pretty convinced that this was all carefully orchestrated and therefore all the more impressive to keep it looking fresh. The pace was frenetic – quite rightly so – for most of the show but, particularly in the second half, some moments of quiet reflection and tense dramatic situations took the show out of the realms of it being just another comic musical. Adrian’s growing dismay with his parents’ antics with new unsuitable partners was actually quite touching.
The youngster playing Adrian was absolutely spot on – on the night I saw it Rufus Kampa did the honours. It is no mean feat to hold together a West End musical and yet this is what he did. If the other three lads (playing the part in rotation) are of the same calibre then it’s hats off to the casting director. I was equally impressed by Rebecca Nardin’s turn as Pandora; once again she leapt straight out of the pages of the book and was exactly as I had always imagined her. The other two children were Jeremiah Waysome as a cheeky Nigel and Jack Gale as menacing Barry (the latter also took care of puppeteering duties with the dog).
Most impressive of the adult cast was John Hopkins as a (surely psychotic) headmaster and the oily next door neighbour who steals Mrs Mole (Amy Ellen Richardson) away by tangoing her around her kitchen – this scene was a particular highlight. However the cast were universally very good and even the older adults threw themselves into proceedings with boundless energy.
I didn’t find the songs particularly memorable but neither were they intrusive or dull. Many were pastiches of other styles – there was a touch of Les Mis to the staging of “Take A Stand” when Adrian and his classmates defy school convention by (shock horror) wearing red socks. And the lyrics were a riot of surprising rhymes of which W.S. Gilbert might have been proud (I don’t suppose anyone ever again will think to rhyme “BO” with “menstrual flow” – it worked at the time!)
I can’t say it was the best musical I have ever seen but it was certainly one of the most exuberant and it’s great to see a truly British creation brought so vividly to life. If you’re an original fan of the books I think you’ll truly appreciate this adaptation. Highly recommended.*
So, a great show but I do wonder what some of the youngsters in the audience made of it. I’m sure the it has reached the West End partly because of the success of Matilda which would appeal (technically anyway) to the same demographic. However, whereas Roald Dahl’s story was palpably aimed at children I never thought Adrian Mole was (even though I recall it being a popular read among the adolescent age group). Now with the distance of getting on for forty years I’m afraid a lot of the references that I found hilarious might have passed them by.
My advice, therefore, would be that if you are taking along youngsters as a summer holiday treat it might be wisest to get them clued in. Play them some of the music that was in vogue and introduce them to some of the TV and films of the era. Above all help them recognise the 1980s as a time when mobile phones and modern technology was in its infancy, when social media was an unheard of entity and when pubescent teenagers wrote in diaries rather than kept blogs or Snapchatted about their lives. That said, although it was absolutely a different world there are some things which have remained eternal – not least the idea that the rest of the world just doesn’t get us. As Adrian himself muses “Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered, people will understand the torment of being a 13 3/4 year old undiscovered intellectual”.
*This review (in shortened form) first appeared on the LTR website
Production photos by Pamela Raith
After leaving the show I walked past the Palace Theatre where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is playing. It suddenly struck me that these literary phenomena bore comparison. Both Townsend and Rowling begin their series with a young male protagonist of similar age and followed them through to a somewhat disillusioned adulthood. Harry and Adrian have similar owlish, spectacle wearing demeanours and, crucially, parental issues. Their best friends (Ron and Nigel) are cast in similar moulds and the key female characters (Pandora and Hermione) are intelligent, independent and clearly upper middle class young women. Perhaps both writers were tapping into some sort of common experience which is maybe why both have been incredibly successful. And what about those ageing purveyors of sage advice Professor Dumbledore and Bert Baxter – or is that pushing the comparison too far?