Sue Townsend’s series of books about spotty teenage intellectual Adrian Mole were hugely successful in the 1980s, as were the two TV adaptations starring Gian Samarco as the eponymous hero.
Now, the musical version has been enjoying a West End residency, following a run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2017. It utilises a small cast: four children who appear on rotation, and six adults.
Using a set by Tom Rogers of sliding walls, hidden cupboards, and doors, plus a wash of lighting tricks by Howard Hudson that evoke the shapes and colours of 1980s confectionery, this show pulls us right back into young Adrian’s formative decade. It’s a feeling underlined by the cheesy mixtape played as the audience are taking their seats.
Adrian is the only child of slovenly parents George and Pauline, and they live in Leicester. He drinks, she drudges, and their son writes poetry and obsessively worries over the size of his “thing”: around the stage prosenium are rulers spelling out that fact in glorious centimetres.
While Adrian’s heart starts to flutter at the sight of posh new pupil Pandora (“daddy is an accountant, and a socialist, who sent me to comprehensive hell”), his home life breaks apart as mum Pauline is seduced by sleazy neighbour Mr Lucas.
The songs, by personal and professional partners Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, not only capture the time in which the show is set, but also the feeling of navigating confusing feelings as a growing child.
Through seventeen songs, a year progresses and everyone has a chance to join in – Mum Dad, Mr Lucas, Grandma, Bert, Nigel, Barry, dirty Doreen (who isn’t a million miles removed from Nigel Slater’s stepmum in Toast), and even despicable schoolmaster Mr Scruton and scatty Miss Elf.
I enjoyed Michael Hawkins as Adrian, a mass of confusion mixed with fake bravado whether sending a poem off to the BBC, standing up to bullies, or watching with bewilderment as his mum and dad behave badly without him.
Matilda Hopkins (Pandora), Cuba Kamanu (Nigel) and Charlie Stripp (little bruiser Barry), also excelled and were ably supported by the adults – Amy Ellen Richardson (Pauline), Andrew Langtree (George), John Hopkins (Lucas/Scruton), Rosemary Ashe (Grandma), Lara Denning (Miss Elf/Doreen, displaying a fun range), and Ian Talbot (Bert). All six adults also portray school pupils where required.
The small band, hidden above the action most of the time, are led by MD Mark Collins with the songs (perky but unmemorable) accompanied with a spark and a flourish. It was fun to see them revealed during one section, and they are certainly a hard-working group. Director Luke Sheppard proves that working with children and animals – albeit a puppet dog – can sometimes be a success.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole hits the spot for both 80s nostalgics (who may cringe at shell-suits and deely boppers) and those new to Sue Townsend’s amusing books. I enjoyed its spirit and its sense of fun; it’s no classic, but two and a half hours flew by and – one little technical mishap aside – everything flows quickly while still retaining time for chsracter development.
Production photos by Pamela Raith.