Sunday, 6 August 2017

Theatre review: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾

After an initial run in Leicester, where Sue Townsend’s much-loved series of books is set, Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary’s (music and lyrics) musical version of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ has been rewritten and now lands at the Menier Chocolate Factory with an eye on giving Matilda a run for its money. And it could well manage it as Cleary, Brunger and director Luke Sheppard have pitched the show between nostalgia for the adults and silliness to keep kids occupied, in a production that kept an audience of both captivated this afternoon. On January 1st 1981 Adrian (Benjamin Lewis, alternating with Ilan Galkoff and Samuel Menhinick) decides to start the titular diary for what will turn out to be an eventful year, as his parents Pauline (Kelly Price) and George (Dean Chisnall) separate after Pauline has an affair with the next-door neighbour.

But Adrian is more distracted by his own attempt at a romantic life, as the middle-class Pandora (Asha Banks, alternating with Georgia Pemberton and Lara Wollington) joins his class and he’s instantly smitten.

The child cast is completed by Amir Wilson (alternating with Edward Hooper and Max Robson) as Adrian’s best friend and occasional romantic nemesis Nigel, and Connor Davies (alternating with Jason Rennie and Callum McDonald) as school bully Barry, while the adults include Gay Soper as Adrian’s grandmother and Barry James as Bert, the old Communist he has to look after for a school community project. In a production that isn’t too concerned with subtlety, John Hopkins has particular fun chewing the scenery as both Pauline’s new boyfriend Creep Lucas, and permanently furious headmaster Mr Scruton, while Lara Denning’s frisky turn as Dirty Doreen is short but memorable.

Although it was the awkward teenage adventures that ensured their popularity, Townsend’s books are at heart political satire, reflecting the inequalities and injustices of the Thatcher years and beyond through a teenager’s perspective. The musical version largely sticks to the comedy, although there are nods to the political situation of the time and parallels to things that haven’t changed. The show seems, to me, to pitch the period detail just right: Tom Rogers’ design, which is based around Adrian’s bedroom but cleverly transforms to the various locations, is packed with 1980s detail (Penny wondered before the show started how much the retro toys would be worth now – Mr Potato Head was still in the original packaging,) that’s great for nostalgia and a few laughs. But the setting never becomes the point, meaning both adults who remember the books and young audiences going through similar teenage dramas will think the show tailored for them.

Cleary’s songs aren’t the most varied soundtrack but they’d probably stand out more on repeated listens, and certainly provide the jumping-off point for a huge amount of energy from the cast, with Chisnall and Hopkins always looking on the verge of corpsing in their scenes together (too bad Hairspray has made me forever suspicious about whether this is real or not.) The book’s inevitably been streamlined to a few central storylines but the play still retains a bit of an episodic nature as it takes us through the first year of Adrian’s diary. All of the narrator’s pompousness is there but Lewis also makes him likeable and vulnerable, with the rest of the child cast we saw today equally stepping up to the plate – Banks is a force to be reckoned with whenever Pandora flies into a feminist rage. Very funny and simply joyous, this is a production that has found the right way to keep Adrian Mole alive, and perhaps find him a new generation of fans as well.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ by Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, based on the novel by Sue Townsend, is booking until the 9th of September at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir, Tristram Kenton.

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