Let's face it, there 's never exactly been a surfeit of musicals that focus on misunderstood intellectuals – especially not the kind of undervalued thinker that hails from Leicester and is 13 ¾.
Here, plugging that mysterious gap, is this bright, likeable but flawed show by Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary. Sue Townsend's glorious 1982 book has generated several sequels, a TV and radio series and a 1984 West End adaptation with songs. The wonder, then, is why it has taken over thirty years for an all-singing, all-dancing version to hit the stage.
Or so you might have thought. But the material presents the musical adaptor with some stiff challenges. The joy of the book – which is like the missing link between The Diary of a Nobody and Bridget Jones's Diary – is how hilariously it captures the priggish, earnest tones of self-pitying adolescence and tips the wink about Adrian's sublime knack for misreading the situation, as he struggles to cope with everything from spots to parental divorce and infatuation with the socially superior Pandora. How do you open up the proceedings without violating the crucial principle that that we are seeing the whole saga from the secret diary writer's point of view? There are times when show pulls off this trick with mischievous flair. I particularly liked the sequence where Adrian, in the throes of tonsillitis, has a nightmare fantasia of the world after his death. “If you had lived, we could have been happy/Running a refuge in Milton Keynes,” intones Pandora (excellent Imogen Gurney), who has gone back to Nigel, while his school bully nemesis Barry Kent (Harrison Slater) erupts in a frenzy of post-prison Nobel Prize-winning rap.
It's a pity, then, that we are shown moments that only the adults know about. For example, the grandma (Rosemary Ashe) gets to holler an accusatory ballad at her adulterous daughter-in-law (Kirsty Hoiles) in a scene that feels gratingly like going behind our hero's back.
I was about to say that Joel Fossard-Jones (one of the four Adrians to hand) is “spot-on” in the very demanding central role but a bad complexion is just about the only relevant thing he doesn't bring to a performance of well-sung wonderfully winning geekiness. Luke Sheppard's production has bags of verve, played on a jolly set of slanting cut-out houses by a hard-working cast of ten (four youngsters and adults who sometimes double as kids).
For my taste, though, the big productions numbers – choreographed with cheeky wit by Tim Jackson – occasionally feel at odds with what is special and funny in Townsend's warm, low-key treatment of these drab, downbeat lives and the Thatcher zeitgeist. They replace that distinctiveness with generic razzmatazz pastiche (traffic cones and hockey sticks pressed into action for the toppers-and-canes welcome to Pandora in “Look at That Girl”) that seems insufficiently an expression of Adrian's fantasy life.
There are problems of perspective and tone that need sorting out before this amiable show can be seriously be ranked with Billy Elliot and Matilda.
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