The world in the early 1980s was a really different place. There was a female Prime Minister, The Tories were tearing themselves apart over Europe. There were massive inequalities in wealth.The Labour party looked unelectable and there was a nutter in the White House threatening other countries with terrible weapons. See, nothing like today at all. There was one big difference though. If you wanted to record your everyday activities and thoughts, then there were no online video logs or laptops with built in webcams. Oh no, you had to use a book and a pen to chronicle your life for future generations. And, unlike today where you pray people will view your blog, in the 1980s your diary was kept a secret from all but your closest friends – in fact sometimes from them as well. Welcome to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ – the Musical which is packing them in at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
January 1981 and young Adrian (Benjamin Lewis/Ilan Galkoff/Samuel Menhinick) is starting his first diary. Adrian is an unusual boy ¾ of a year into being a teenager. The reason for this is that Adrian, unlike his mother Pauline (Kelly Price) and father George (Dean Chisnall) is an intellectual. This makes him slightly different to everyone else and leaves him feeling odd and alone. Until his life changes with the arrival of a new pupil in his class. Born into a ‘Champagne Socialist’ family Pandora Braithwaite (Asha Banks/Georgia Pemberton/Lara Wollington) is a breath of fresh air for Adrian. With her beauty, her brains and her socialist principles, Adrian is convinced that Pandora is the love of his life – a thought that seems to be shared with his best friend Nigel (Amir Wilson/Edward Hooper/Max Robson). Unfortunately, real life gets in the way of Adrian’s wooing. Over the course of the year, his parents split up. His mum goes off with next door neighbour Mr Lucas (John Hopkins) while his father starts a relationship with local good-time girl Doreen Slater (Lara Denning). Then there is his charity work looking after the curmudgeonly Bert Baxter (Barry James), not to mention dodging the school bully Barry (Jason Rennie/Callum Mcdonald/Connor Davies) and the interference from his Gran (Gay Soper). All told, it’s a lot of things to put on the shoulders of an adolescent boy with spots and a ruler that has to be marked out incorrectly.
Book, lyrics and composer team Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary worked with Sue Townsend to bring the original book – a true masterpiece about the problems of teenage angst – to life and that collaboration has really paid off. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ feels really authentic in its writing and execution. Listening to the dialogue, I was immediately taken back to when I first read the books and my initial reaction to them. Actually, I really identified with Adrian as I was always certain another baby and myself were swapped at birth and there is now some ‘normal’ bloke living in a house where the works of Proust and Classic FM are the norm – sorry mum and dad. I suppose my only problem with the writing is that the original book is so full of great moments that inevitably, things have to be left out to make a 2½ hour show. This means that both Bert Baxter and Grandmother Mole are reduced as characters – though they both get some wonderful one-liners in – and aren’t used as much as I would have liked. There are some great songs and a slickness to the writing that really engages with the audience, making them feel like part of Adrian’s world.
Looking at the production and wow, Designer Tom Rogers has really hit the mark not only with the very interesting fashions of the times – I must have blanked from my minds that there was a period when boiler suits were ‘de rigueur – but also with the perfect representation of a teenage bedroom in the 1980s. And it doesn’t end there, with a few secret compartments, the set becomes a host of different locations for Director Luke Sheppard to use with his cast.
And what a cast. In the synopsis above, I’ve underlined the actors that performed the children’s roles when I saw the show and if the others are half as good, then you are in for a fantastic night. Acting, singing, dancing, even bringing life to a puppet dog, there seems to be no end to the talented youngsters’ skills. The adults are equally as good and, indeed this is a first rate cast with no weak links that I could see. The only minor issue was sometimes with pacing, where the cast didn’t allow enough time to ‘ride the laughter’ before moving on. It’s a minor point and I’m sure it will get better as the run continues.
I’m going to end with something I overheard as I left after the well-deserved standing ovation was over. One chap turned to his companion and, beaming with happiness said; “this show is the new Billy Elliot”. Given how often productions transfer from the Menier to the north of the river, it wouldn’t surprise me if that prophecy turned out to be true.
Review by Terry Eastham
Set in 1980s Leicester, we follow 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 3/4… To top it off, when new girl Pandora joins the class and captures his heart, his best friend Nigel steals hers. Can Adrian win her love and escape from his chaotic family life?
The Secret Diary of
Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4
14th July – 9th September
RUNNING TIME – 2hrs 20mins (including interval)
Pauline – Kelly Price
George – Dean Chisnall
Mr Lucas/Mr Scruton – John Hopkins
Doreen/Miss Elf – Lara Denning
Grandma – Gay Soper
Bert – Barry James
Adrian – Benjamin Lewis / Ilan Galkoff / Samuel Menhinick
Barry – Jason Rennie / Callum Mcdonald / Connor Davies
Nigel – Amir Wilson / Edward Hooper / Max Robson
Pandora – Asha Banks / Georgia Pemberton / Lara Wollington
Understudies – Mathew Craig / Claire Greenway
Book & Lyrics – Jake Brunger
Music & Lyrics – Pippa Cleary
Dirctor – Luke Sheppard
Choreographer – Rebecca Howell
Set & Costume Design – Tom Rogers
Lighting Design – Howard Hudson
Sound Design – Greg Clarke
Musical Direction – Alex Parker
Orchestrations – Paul Herbert
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ – The Musical
Venue: Menier Chocolate Factory
Address: 53 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RU