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posted/updated: 02 Jul 2019 -
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 - the Musical
Book and lyrics by Jake Brunger. Music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary. Based on the novel by Sue Townsend. Presented by A. Clare, R. Sabi, Knickerbockerglory, M. Puddle/V. Graham, Curve
society/company: West End & Fringe (directory)
performance date: 01 Jul 2019
venue: Ambassadors Theatre, West Street, London WC2H 9ND
reviewer/s: Paul Johnson (Sardines review)

Photos: Pamela Raith Photography


Sue Townsend’s novel, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ was nothing short of groundbreaking in 1982 and fast became a children’s classic. It’s hardly surprising that the book’s musical adaptation – which started life at Leicester’s Curve in 2015 followed by an off-West End run at The Menier Chocolate Factory two years ago – has finally opened this week in the West End.

The intimate Ambassadors Theatre is also an ideal venue for the compact 12-strong cast to excel in. Mind you, with four sets of Adrians, Pandoras, Nigels and Barrys (I don’t know how Children’s Casting Director, Jo Hawes, does it) the full acting company is actually double the size of what you’ll see onstage.

Young Adrian Mole is hitting puberty and, as well as dealing with his mum (Amy Ellen Richardson) and dad’s (Andrew Langtree) shaky marriage, he has two things on his mind; becoming more of an intellectual (reading and writing poetry) and getting a girlfriend. When Pandora Braithwaite joins the class – having previously been privately educated – Adrian sets himself a personal goal, despite best friend, Nigel, also eyeing up the new addition to the school. With his home-life in turmoil, Adrian actually manages to turn his attention to more pressing matters and finally woos the equally-intellectual Pandora, even managing to pen a modern version of the school nativity production in the process.

Current issues of equality and female empowerment have been added to the modern adaptation, made obvious when Pandora can’t believe Adrian after he suggests they should plan to get married, at which time he will happily give his blessing to his wife getting a job in a little cake shop. “I’ll be buying a cake, not selling it!”

Jake Brunger’s adaptation of Townsend’s book, aided by nearly twenty mostly-catchy musical numbers from long-term collaborator, Pippa Cleary (lyrics co-written by both), brings a colourful, funny and mad-cap version of the teenage intellectual’s diary to life under the creative hand of director, Luke Sheppard.

As well as Tom Rogers’ slightly cartoon-esque design, this style is wonderfully encapsulated by the multi-doubling of the adult cast, be it parents, neighbours, teachers, schoolchildren (oh, yes, hilarious!), hospital staff or passers-by. Even young Charlie Stripp – on press night – got to operate the Mole family’s pet dog (via puppetry) as well as his main role as the brilliantly played, pint-sized bully, Barry. The cast also handle all the set changes with well-rehearsed slickness.

Having not caught the musical’s journey at Curve or The Menier, I can’t compare this week’s opening with its previous outings. Suffice to say, it does look like the adult cast are particularly enjoying the chance to spread their wings. This is especially the case for John Hopkins and Lara Denning, with Hopkins going beautifully over the top as wife-stealing neighbour, Mr Lucas, as well as Welsh mad headmaster, Mr Scruton; and Denning contrasting Adrian’s oppressed teacher, Miss Elf, with the outrageous Doreen Slater… who lives above the local chip shop and pounces on Adrian’s dad soon after Mrs Mole runs away with Mr Lucas.

The in-it-together approach generated from the multiple roles means the show has quite a strong ensemble feel to it and, as such, it’s not easy to separate out certain members of the cast. That said, I must praise Michael Hawkins (Adrian), Matilda Hopkins (Pandora), Cuba Kamanu (Nigel) and the aforementioned Charlie Stripp (Barry). All teenagers themselves, it is a credit that they can grab the rare opportunity to drive the central story of a West End show, such as this, with so much confidence.

Pippa Cleary’s tuneful numbers vary from solos to whole company routines (choreographed by Rebecca Howell) where highlights include Intellectual Boy, If You’d Lived and The Nativity. MD, Mark Collins’ 7-piece band, stuck high upstage handle the numbers with lively ease.

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