I don’t think there can be many lives who haven’t been affected by the character of Adrian Mole in one way or another. I can remember when the original book came out, and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought it for me as part of my Christmas Present Package. I thought it was brilliant, and over the subsequent years bought and read all of young Mr Mole’s diarised works. The TV series with Julie Walters and Stephen Moore was great too. Moley was one of the author Sue Townsend’s greatest creations, and definitely her most successful. Sue Townsend herself was from Leicester, as is Adrian Mole, and she based his school environment and council estate home on the places where she was educated and lived. So it’s entirely appropriate that The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ The Musical should start life at the Curve in Leicester. Young Adrian would have been so impressed by the artistic and cultural hub that is the Curve.
The original book runs from New Year’s Day 1981 to April 1982 (Mole’s 15th birthday), but the show just takes the full year from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Eve. In that time Adrian charts a painful course as an adolescent falling in love with the blessed Pandora, watching his parents’ marriage fall apart and coping with their new loves, visiting and being used as a slave by old Bert Baxter, getting on with some schoolmates and being bullied by others, habitually writing to the BBC and generally being a typical, angst-ridden teenager. But this isn’t a simple dramatization of the novel – it’s a musical, with book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary, two Bristol University graduates who are starting to carve out a career in the genre. Director Luke Sheppard has brought together a talented team to tell the story of Moley’s early adolescence, and the result is a bright and breezy show with many enjoyable aspects, plenty of drama and some extremely humorous scenes.
Tom Rogers has designed a wonderful set, full of quirky corners and jagged angles, with pencils that pierce the sky like chimneys and with ink blots all over the floor. Tantalising glimpses of Adrian’s diary pages frame the stage and everything appears bright in satisfyingly child-like primary colours. Congratulations, by the way, to the props department for sourcing all those old Skol cans and the Woolworth’s carrier bag. It’s effectively staged with the Moles’ kitchen at the front and their living area/bedroom to the side – that area also doubles up as Bert’s Stalinist living room and the school room is towards the back of the stage. There’s plenty of useful space for acting as well as singing and dancing. A small thing, but I really enjoyed the way the child actors opened the side doors for the rest of the cast to come out on stage for their curtain calls. It looked very stylish and showed that the kids were in charge.
I’d been looking forward to this show for ages, as I was really curious to see whether this story would actually work as a musical. The answer is Almost. The songs do fit very neatly into the plot and they’re tuneful and entertaining if not over-memorable. In the schoolroom scenes, I liked the way the adult actors joined forces with the child actors to create a whole classroom of the little blighters, which gave rise to some very amusing moments where age was juxtaposed with behaviour. The climax scene – so to speak – when Adrian and the other kids stage an alternative School Nativity play, was full of bravado, delightfully outrageous and very funny.
But there was something about the whole show that just didn’t quite click for me. It didn’t really engage me. I didn’t feel much sympathy for many of the characters, which never helps when you’re trying to identify with a show. It hadn’t properly occurred to me before just how unpleasant a character Adrian’s mum Pauline is. I thought Kirsty Hoiles showed just the right amount of sentimental detachment and lack of empathy to make the character of Pauline very credible. As Adrian’s dad George, Neil Ditt turned in a nicely downtrodden and “victim” performance, and I thought his scenes with Adrian, the two guys home alone, were often quite moving. I really enjoyed Cameron Blakely’s creepy seduction techniques as the slimy Mr Lucas from next door, and his scenes where he’s wooing Pauline with his Latin moves were hilarious. You just don’t expect that kind of thing in Leicester.
So it wasn’t the performances (for the most part) that caused (for me) the show not to soar. I think the main problem is that in order to condense the book into a two and a half hour show – with songs – they had to omit so much that you only have the barebones of the story to work with and not a lot of depth of character. Doubling up roles also caused its own problems. Amy Booth-Steel is excellent as Miss Elf and Mrs Lucas, but as Doreen Slater she presents a completely different character from that in the book. Miss Booth-Steel is a fine comely woman, but Adrian always referred to Doreen as “stick-insect” in his diaries, and, with the best will in the world, Miss Booth-Steel is never going to achieve that epithet. There’s also no Queenie for Bert to settle down with, no Singh family, no parents for Pandora, and the story stops before Argentina invades the Falklands.
Adrian himself, in the book, as far as I can remember, wavers between nervous enfant terrible and neurotic sidekick. He’s hypochondriac, hyper-sensitive, self-deludingly confident about his own intellect; he’s patronising, he’s hideously class-oriented; basically, he’s an insufferable little prig. But we recognise our own adolescence in him, so forgive him and laugh along at his mistakes, his foibles and anxieties, as we know that life will iron them all out in the fullness of time. The Brunger and Cleary version of Adrian struck me as being simply far too nice. That’s no criticism of Sebastian Croft, who played Adrian in our performance, who’s an amazing little song and dance man, has wonderful stage presence for someone so young, who enunciated beautifully (it’s a skill, and one to be appreciated), fitted in to the rest of the cast like a dream, and absolutely deserved his very enthusiastic curtain call.
His Pandora was played by Lulu-Mae Pears, splendidly mature compared to Adrian, delicately fluttering into his world and very credibly being the target of the Optimum Girlfriend Award. I’d say Adrian was boxing way above his weight here. The rest of the cast all give very good support; although, unfortunately, there was one actor who, for whatever reason, was considerably below par for our performance. Maybe they weren’t feeling well or maybe they were under-rehearsed; but it’s probably not very fair to make further comment.
So, for some reason, for me this all added up to something less than the sum of its parts. However, the audience enjoyed it and gave it a very good reception, and there was certainly something for everyone to enjoy. Maybe not for purist aficionados of the book, but if you want to see teenage angst set to music, this is a good place to start!
P.S. There’s been a creeping trend (and I don’t mind it) that the programme on sale to accompany the show of your choice is basically the printed text of the play but with some biographical details of the cast. Now I like reading plays, and giving you the text to take home with you can only add to your knowledge and appreciation of what you have seen; plus it works as an excellent memory aid should you wish to revisit it in sometime in the future. However, I did think it was a bit cheeky that the programme for this show is an adapted version – not of the book/libretto of the show as such, but of Sue Townsend’s original novel. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half the households whose families come to see this show already have a copy. I know that at £5 it’s not an unreasonable price, but I think if you’re going to combine the programme and text into one book, it should at least contain the words of the show you’re seeing!