The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ the Musical, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, review: Formidably funny adaptation of an 80s classic

Sue Townsend’s 80s hit about the inner struggles of Leicestershire everyteen Adrian Mole is brought to life in brilliant musical numbers, sung by a stellar cast.

Joe Vesey-Byrne
Monday 31 July 2017 12:44
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Benjamin Lewis as the crotchety 13 ¾-year-old Adrian Mole in the stage adaptation of Sue Townsend's 80s hit book
Benjamin Lewis as the crotchety 13 ¾-year-old Adrian Mole in the stage adaptation of Sue Townsend's 80s hit book

A female prime minister, a TV president, and a royal wedding – it has never been more timely to return to the diaries of Adrian Mole, the spotty, teenage, tortured intellectual, growing up in the frightful ordinariness of the 1980s midlands.

Adaptations of the Mole diaries have previously appeared on television and radio, and this latest transformation of Sue Townsend’s series into a musical is an inspired choice. The great musical numbers created by Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary blend 80s pop with real show stoppers, and act as the perfect vehicle for his gawky internal monologue. The production is also a rather bawdy affair at times, perfectly capturing the inherently comic nature of puberty.

Dean Chisnall (left) and Kelly Price and Adrian’s on-the-rocks parents Pauline and George Mole (Alastair Muir)

The set design is wonderfully nostalgic, and props to the props master for their requisitioning of Grange Hill posters, Boggle, and a myriad of recognisable 80s paraphernalia. In another piece of quality design work, Adrian’s dog is a beautifully crafted puppet made of crumpled pieces of ink splattered diary paper.

Great episodes from the diary make up the plot, and as the production progresses, asides straight from its pages such as: “I think I’m a tortured intellectual you know”, fade as the story of Adrian’s parents’ marriage difficulties takes over. In the second act, even this plot line is only a parenthesis around vignettes about Mole’s struggles with tonsillitis and the brilliant show within a show, the school Nativity as directed by Adrian the auteur.

Benjamin Lewis in the lead role is outstanding, both adorable and winning at the crotchety 13 ¾-year-old. John Hopkins is delightfully louche as neighbour Mr Lucas, and as the musical’s other villain the grotesque teacher Mr Scruton. The entire cast are strong actors with belter singing voices, and the child actors have been trusted to be the true stars of the performance.

Benjamin Lewis (left) as Adrian, and best friend Nigel played by Amir Wilson (Alastair Muir)

The musical, for its upbeat tone, does not shy away from some of the melancholy present in Townsend’s work. Even if Adrian’s own teenage self-absorption shields him from much of the angst in his parents’ marriage, the musical has moments of real moving sadness in amongst the jokes about his spots.

Most of all, the heart and warmth of this production comes from the use of a small troupe, an adaptable set, and the adult cast doubling as Adrian’s classmates. It all combines to give the production a wonderfully ramshackle and community feel, as though it was Adrian’s own adaptation of his diaries. Moreover a moustached adult dressed in pigtails and a school uniform is always funny.

Asha Banks (centre) as Pandora shines in the show-stopping number ‘Look at that Girl’ (Alastair Muir)

Thirty five years since the Mole diaries were first published, the work has retained its subversive edge. Adrian’s avant garde nativity, is still exquisitely blasphemous by today’s secularised standards. Moreover, jokes about equal pay, and the BBC received rather topical laughter.

In addition to an audience of children, the evening’s crowd was packed with adults of Generation X reliving their youth, but nor did those unfamiliar with the books go away unentertained. This endearing and thoroughly enjoyable show should not be missed.

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