Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 9 September 2017
MICHAEL ADAIR, 25¾ , APPROPRIATELY TAKES OVER AND WRITES… Before The Inbetweeners, the most accurate reflection of the total embarrassment of teenage life in Britain was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾. Nearly 35 years on from publication, Adrian, who recently turned 50, has featured in 7 further books and stage radio and TV adaptations.
Now Sue Townsend’s aspiring intellectual makes his way to the Menier Chocolate Factor with a musical rendition of his journey into adolescence by composer Pippa Cleary and lyricist Jake Brunger.
It’s set in 1981 . Adrian, played on this particular evening with some wonderful facial expressions by Benjamin Lewis, is a touch more confident and self aware than his literary template. He doesn’t need his grandmother to stand up to the school bully for him and his famous red socks are made to be much more of a deliberate act of political defiance.
We are also given a greater insight into the adult relationships than our oblivious protagonist was able to share in his diary. Pauline Mole, played by Kelly Price, is at first quite troubled by the advances of John Hopkins’s suave Mr Lucas who slithers into the family kitchen, his booming baritone backed by a sultry clarinet. It is, however, in these moments of tenderness that the show loses its way. The ballads and flashes of poignancy are instead drowned out by rousing ensemble pieces and swooping moments of nostalgia and fun. We see a school disco complete with dry ice and utterly euphoric synth pop , and an amusing dream sequence where Adrian melodramatically foresees his own death from a bout of tonsillitis whilst accompanied by jiving doctors, funky basslines and an appearance from God himself.
The source material is lovingly adhered to, with many of the book’s most memorable lines given plenty of breathing space and still raising laughs and audible smirks of recognition. Sue Townsend’s sense of mischief is all too apparent in Barry James’s Bert Baxter, who is seen waving a lone Soviet flag amidst a sea of Union Jacks at the wedding of Prince Charles and ‘a virgin named Diana’. The knowing social satire at the heart of Townsend’s work remains, with the outstanding Asha Banks, playing 13 year old feminist Pandora Braithwaite declaring to her classmates ‘Inequality ends from today! We’ll get equal pay!’
The set by Tom Rogers is reminiscent of a 1980s toy advertisement. Cast members stream out of cupboards and wardrobes, manipulating the furniture like a game of Jenga, we see tattered editions of classic board games, a poster of Princess Leia, and Orville the duck amidst the various clutter. Patches of damp cover the walls of the cramped family home and the colour palette is both spectacularly naff and remarkably stylish.
In a world of reboots, relaunches and remasters, the return of Adrian Mole is entirely welcome. It’s a funny and enjoyable show, fresh and relevant and perfectly placed to take advantage of today’s market for nostalgia. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its whip-smart peer Matilda, sometimes the singing sounded strained and the more serious scenes felt incidental – but it perfectly captures the spirit of a cult figure. One we can all relate to, probably more than we’d care to admit.