As someone who went through adolescence in a Midlands backwater near the border between Staffs and Derbyshire just before The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 was published in 1982, I had a particular and personal interest in this production. I read every word of the book avidly, over and over, and tried to apply what I learned from it to relationships at that time with disastrous results. But even with a good memory and personal fascination, I had no recollection of a scene where the Virgin Mary is publicly eviscerated on stage in the school nativity play. In a massive song-and-dance routine, the baby Jesus was birthed and then detached from His gory umbilical cord – a blood-red snake like object that looked more like a 20-foot colon than a tiny appendage to a belly button – by a mad doctor wielding a pair of huge secateurs. Elise Bugeja, to her credit, carried off this scene as Pandora playing Mary with purity, poise and perfect pitch, even while managing to convey the trauma of a mum who’s just given birth to the Son of God in a punk-infested stable as imagined by a pimply Midlands teen.
Sebastian Croft was a magical Adrian Mole, encircling this character in the mystery, subtlety and control that belongs a master performer while belting out the big numbers in spine-tingling harmonies as his unchanged treble soared with astonishing power above the bass, tenors and sopranos of the adult cast. At age 13 1/2, his voice must be close to changing, and it is at this moment of imminence that boys’ voices are known to be at their most perfect. It is perhaps the transience of them, the knowledge that this is so soon going to disappear for good that makes them so enchanting.
Bugeja, whose heartbreaking beauty makes it easy to see why Adrian is lost upon sight, also had the chance to show some impressive ballet skills in the choreography.
Along with Croft, they are just two of the stars of the future in this musical with its catchy tunes, small cast and beautifully conceived and lit yet simple set. George Barnden as Nigel was comic genius and even up against the experienced and top-drawer adult cast, the timing of his every line was completely en point. Of all the cast he also had best the elusive Midlands accent, which I am blessed to share a little, even after all these years, and which none can ever fathom out properly either in terms of source or imitation, ducky. His relationship with Adrian, in its cute comedy, echoed that between Michael and Billy in the mother of all famous musicals using child actors. Factor in the other children and the tarty vulnerability of Call the Midwife’s Kirsty Hoiles as Pauline Mole and energetic Cameron Blakely as Mr Lucas and you have a musical that is a child of Matilda married to Billy Elliot with Les Mis as the grandpa. At one point everyone does indeed clamber on a kind of barricade. Yet like all children, whatever its parentage, it has its own emerging identity. It is referential but not derivative. Like film buffs, I love tracing the genesis of musicals. For example, Neil Ditt as George Mole is endearingly sweet and the torments born out of his working class but noble poverty in love and betrayal made me think of Blood Brothers. And of course that rather staggering nativity scene could have been implanted via IVF from the Book of Mormon, except that’s sort of what you expect when you go to Mormon. What happens to Mary/Pandora in Adrian Mole might come as a bit of a shock to young families, especially churchgoing ones used to a 21st century culture where even to challenge the existence of Santa Claus in a class of infants is to invite lifelong ignominy. But then, this was the 1980s.
It took me ages to make up my mind about this scene. I went back to the source, the book itself, helpfully printed as the programme, and most of it is indeed there, on page 214, complete with punks, Mrs Thatcher, political references to the Middle East, although not quite so much gore. This scene says it all really about why it’s just so wonderful for us to be living in the 2010s. Some of the conversations between the children, especially about sex, illustrate in a particular way the horrible peculiarity of that time, an era that was at once bawdy and innocent.
Or maybe it’s the same in every era, and that’s just what it is like being a teen.
In this way, although the adults command many of the best scenes, especially the nuptial travails of Adrian’s parents, the play is truly given to us through the eyes of Adrian, as Sue Townsend intended in the diary. In the end, I came down on the side of this scene’s inclusion, with the proviso that it needs some reworking on the religious literacy front. It was because of this alone that I’ve given this musical four and not five stars.
We mustn’t forget that the music and lyrics are all brand new, the work of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary. And the whole cast are superb, the whole made brilliantly in the present show but also to endure for decades beyond by young director Luke Sheppard. Neil Salvage as Bert Baxter is just gorgeous and I remember how in that time, every street had one of him. Rosemary Ashe, grandma, has been in everything. She is the archetypal grandma and has one of the best numbers, her voice powerful and strong, the voice of reason, sense and passion. Amy Booth-Steel is one of the actors who plays several roles, including of extra kids, and while this confused some critics, it did the job for me. The children also at times shifted into playing minor adult walk-on parts. That is just what it was like then, a lack of boundaries, fluid identities, everyone mucking in, families and neighbours all in some kind of big chaotic communal soup. The West End and its commentators complain often about the lack of new musicals, yet when they do come along, they can be too easily destroyed with words that wound as much as any knife, when all that is needed is some fine-tuning here or there. Adrian is a new musical, and yes it has some growing pains, but in places it is genius.
One of these places is another of the child actors, who I’ve saved to last because for me he was among the most interesting. Casting director Jo Hawes has excelled herself in this show and these children went through many hours, days, weeks of auditions to make it to the stage for this short run. James McJannett-Smith, aged 13 3/4, was Barry Kent the bully. This well-built child with his hair styled short and stubby looked like the archetypical nasty boy, the boy that used to punch me in the tummy, hard, when I refused to kiss him in our dilapidated and crumbling church school playground near Stoke-on-Trent. Yet sensitive and intelligent eyes shone out as he and the others negotiated the playground of adolescence together on the stage. McJannett-Smith also controlled the puppet dog, and in the q&a at the end of the show, I was able to ask how, as a mere child, but a rather large child at that, he had mastered the art we’ve seen in War Horse and in Goodnight Mister Tom (but perhaps not so much in I Can’t Sing) of managing to make the audience look at the dog rather than the person manipulating it. He said he was coached by the show’s puppet director Rachel Canning and the art involved both his costume, a shabby grey duffel overcoat, as well as putting all his focus and attention on the dog as he walked on the stage and even before, so the audience was itself directed, subconsciously, in the same direction.
And that is how the whole works. We, the audience, are directed, laughing and crying all the time at the wonderful jokes, the pathos, the beautiful music, into the mind of a tormented, wannabe intellectual teen. It’s not always a pretty sight in there, but these children, as the cliche goes, are our future, and this kind of show with its pared down costs and its instant tourability has to be the musical of the future. Catch it if you can but don’t worry if you can’t, it certain to be born again before too long.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
Set in 1980s Leicester, Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ – The Musical, follows the daily dramas and misadventures of Adrian’s adolescent life. With dysfunctional parents, ungrateful elders, a growing debt to school bully Barry Kent and an unruly pimple on his chin, life is hard for a misunderstood intellectual who is only 13 ¾… To top it off, when new girl Pandora captures his heart, his best friend Nigel steals hers. Can Adrian win back her love and escape his chaotic family life?
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾: I Miss Our Life
With an infectious original score, this brand new adaptation rediscovers this much-loved novel and bring Adrian’s story to life once more. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ was Townsend’s first novel, published by Penguin Books in 1982. It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide, been translated into 30 languages, and spawned 7 sequel Adrian Mole novels. The novels have previously been adapted for the stage, radio and television.
SUE TOWNSEND’S THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE AGED 13 ¾ – THE MUSICAL
Book & Lyrics by Jake Brunger Music & Lyrics by Pippa Cleary – Director: Luke Sheppard
Originally commissioned by Curve theatre, Leicester and Royal & Derngate Northampton Curve today announces the full cast for the world première of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ – The Musical. The cast includes Rosemary Ashe (Grandma), Cameron Blakely (Mr Lucas), Amy Booth-Steel (Miss Elf/Doreen Slater/Mrs Lucas), Neil Ditt (George Mole), Kirsty Hoiles (Pauline Mole) and Neil Salvage (Bert Baxter). The role of Adrian will be shared by Lewis Andrews, Sebastian Croft, Joel Fossard-Jones and Toby Murray.
The role of Pandora will be played by Elise Bugeja, Imogen Gurney and Lulu-Mae Pears; with Nigel played by George Barnden, Kwame Kandekore, and Samuel Small; and Barry will be played by Edward Cross, James McJannett-Smith and Harrison Slater.
With book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary, this new musical of Sue Townsend’s best seller, directed by Luke Sheppard, will open on 17 March 2015, with previews from 7 March, and runs until 4 April.
“Honestly. My family just don’t understand me. Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered people will understand the torment of being a 13 ¾ year old intellectual” Adrian Mole.
7th March to 4th April 2015 http://www.curveonline.co.uk
Thursday 19th March 2015