Book and Lyrics: Jake Brunger
Music and Lyrics: Pippa Cleary
Director: Luke Sheppard
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
London is full of very important theatre, new writing or reimagined classics shaped to reflect our troubled modern times, filled with the greatest actors of our generation giving career-best performances. Everything needs to have something profound to say, serious political points to make or a wrong to set right, to assume a role in expanding the narrative, reflecting society back at us and sending us home wiser, better people; but sometimes, don’t you wish it was just all a bit more fun?
Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary have the solution, and in a strong year for musical theatre, have brought their adaptation of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ to the West End. A literary childhood hero every bit as memorable as Billy Bunter and Dennis the Menace, this 2.5-hour stage musical is adorable, put together with real affection for the source material and the inspirational geekiness of its hero. Combining big cartoony performances, retro-80s nostalgia, first love, daffy teachers, crazy scenarios and so much joy packed into every fun-filled minute it’s just the tonic we all need.
On 1 January 1981, Adrian Mole begins a diary aged 13¾ in what will be an eventful year, beginning with a tentative crush and rivalry with best friend Nigel over new girl Pandora. But when trouble at home breaks up the household, and a complex world of adult feeling and relationships starts to intrude on his literary life, Adrian realises he must make a stand to win the girl and establish his own future.
Brunger and Cleary’s story doesn’t have a finger-wagging agenda or overt take-home messages about being true to yourself or respecting the career aspirations of women although these themes underlie a lot of the text. Adrian’s plot is a selection of semi-independent scenarios across the calendar year covering a school disco, a trip to Sheffield, a pupil protest and a “modern” nativity play penned by Adrian all held together by the unfolding drama of his parent’s marriage with a clear focus on character creation and storytelling.
Choreographer Rebecca Howell and Cleary have scoured pretty much every musical influence you can think of, using tango and paso for the seductive charm of Adrian’s neighbour Mr Lucas in ‘Begging You for More’, gospel, rap, choral and opera in ‘The Nativity’ and Adrian’s bizarre tonsillitis dream sequence ‘If you Lived’, and more than a touch of High School Musical in the rousing ‘Misunderstood’. Cleary adds classic musical theatre numbers for Adrian’s parents Pauline (Amy Ellen Richardson) and George (Andrew Langtree) such as the tender duets ‘I Miss Our Life’ and the ‘My Lost Love’. But somehow all these styles blend as effortlessly as the comedy pathos of the script.
Director Luke Sheppard pitches the big broad numbers just right, eliciting much from their humorous scenarios. The arrival of George’s new girlfriend Doreen who rapidly takes over the house is excellent and the big finale at Adrian’s Nativity is gloriously funny, builds so well across the number. But this show has real heart too, carefully contrasting the parallel heartbreaks of first love with the fracturing of a marriage years later, themselves childhood sweethearts. There are political points to make about future roles for women in the workplace as well as the pressures of motherhood at a young age, not to mention nods to Thatcher, socialism and everyday sexism, but it’s worn lightly, woven carefully into the fabric of a show that prioritises having a great time above everything else.
For the press night performance, Rufus Kampa as Adrian builds a lovely rapport with the audience, navigating the pressures of teenage life as a bookish and shy young man well-matched by Rebecca Nardin’s excellent comic timing as Pandora and Jeremiah Waysome’s cool and confident Nigel. The grown-ups have lots of fun playing plenty of colourful roles including additional children, with John Hopkins randy Mr Lucas and authoritarian headmaster as well as Lara Denning’s lovelorn teacher among the most memorable.
The show gets a little frenetic at times, particularly in the early sections as rapid scene changes mean bits of furniture are being wheeled on and off almost constantly at one point, but once the story starts to take shape it settles into an easy fluidity. A bit risqué here and there, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾: The Musical is a great family-friendly show and while it’s packed with content, for once its nice to leave a theatre knowing that all you have to think about on the way home is what a nice time you’ve had.
Runs until: 12 October 2019 | Image: Contributed