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Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre.

August 9, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 6th August 2017).


Back when the internet was young, and Theatremonkey.com even younger, a Nottingham teenager around 14 and a bit years old, emailed the Theatremonkey office to inform us that the Adelphi Theatre had an extra row not shown on our seating plan. From that, a “John Tydeman / Adrian Mole” correspondence evolved, an eager slew of reviews, articles – and occasional short plays too. All of unique, impressive quality. A decade or so later, the wider world now recognises and appreciates Jake Brunger’s talents.

This isn’t the first time Mole has been adapted as a musical. At the height of 1980s “Mole Mania,” Wyndhams Theatre hosted a hugely successful but questionably written version. It didn’t work particularly well, and nor, really, did the TV adaptations. Come 2017, however, Brunger and co-creator Pippa Cleary have found the key, and unlocked its true stage potential.

Brunger and Cleary have realised that, while the book is the cerebral musings of a frustrated nearly 14 year old, a stage version must be situation rather than character-led. That vital difference gives us not just an insight into Townsend’s imaginative characters, but an always involving, frequently hilarious, sometimes bittersweet insight into an entire world beyond his singular observations.

We follow Adrian from one booze-addled New Year’s Day to the next, as he loses and gains mother, step mother, tonsils, a bully, a pensioner and most of all, a treacle-haired girlfriend… all in the space of 12 months. Oh, and spots, of course.

Part cartoon, part drama, part, well, fly-on-the-wall, Luke “In The Heights” Sheppard gives us a (big and) bouncy energy on a crazily inventive Tom Rogers set. Rebecca Howell obliges with some terrific choreography – Adrian and Pandora getting an unforgettable pas-de-deux, Doreen Slater a chance to let rip, and more – and Alex Parker’s orchestra carry us along for the ride.

Witty dialogue and sparky lyrics, a whole bunch of cracking songs – “Perfect Mother” and “Now That I’m With You” being just two highlights – and a Nativity Play that needs to be written in full (as well as requiring to be seen to be believed).


Even better, the cast are around the correct ages of the characters. Three teams share duties, and on this occasion Adrian was calling himself Ben Lewis. Not being played by Ben Lewis, just for some reason Adrian was calling himself Ben. That’s all. I’m certain of the fact. Similarly, Pandora, undercover as “Asha Banks,” had a soft steel core to render any teenage boy helpless in her presence. Certainly one Amir Wilson, as neatly done sidekick Nigel called himself, agreed. Making up the quartet, Connor Davis (Barry Kent) is not only an able singer and comedian, but can add puppeteer to his CV. Simon Lipkin should be afraid, very afraid – and not just for his dinner money.

In the grown-up department, Dean Chisnall is ever-reliable as George Mole. How the idiot storage heater (bet nobody under 40 remembers those!) salesman let the vivacious Kelly Price (Pauline Mole) go, though, is inexplicable… John Hopkins as Mr “Creep” Lucas really got lucky there. He’s one heck of a headmaster too – “Popeye Scruton” to the max. Slipping too far into Beano territory perhaps, but fun.

As teacher Miss Elf, Lara Denning makes plenty of a smaller role too, but really comes into her own later as George’s hilariously uncouth lover Doreen Slater, with a scene-stealing song and dance routine to match. Gay Soper as Grandma Mole is her usual delight, her bracing advice to her grandson a comedic highlight. Barry James (Bert Baxter) is also fabulously cantankerous, with one of the best commentaries on a Royal Wedding, ever.

Sure, there are faults. Adrian’s trade mark “missing the point every time” isn’t always at the fore, perhaps, and there is a certain softening of general attitudes towards children, gender roles and authority that isn’t true to the spirit of the times. The show itself also takes a while to get going, with the early classroom scene a little long once the basics have been established. Having the adults play extra children so soon is both mildly disconcerting and distracting (pigtailed pensioners, Ms Price keeping the dads in the audience interested; moving on) though some good one-liners just about style it out. The second act has most of the pacier fun too, though again that is probably as it should be.

A few anachronisms also slip in. “Multi-tasking” wasn’t a 1980s phrase, nobody had nylon school rucksacks (we used sports-bags, as Adrian’s own diary notes). Cordless home-phones were a little later, as were spiffy stage-management equipment, super-soaker water-pistols and smart wooden lockers. On the other hand, I think Pandora may well have coined “BHS” as a convenient abbreviation long before Mr Green did so.

None of this matters a jot, though, in this riotously colourful, tuneful and always joyous celebration of adolescence. I admit, I’ll also add a personal pride in knowing one of the creators from “way back when,” too; but that aside, this stands as a definitive version of a much-loved book on stage. Long may it continue to be seen and performed by school and other groups, a celebration of British pre-internet adolescent anxiety – for which one Mole speaks for us all.

4 stars.

(Photographs supplied by the Menier Chocolate Factory, used by kind permission).

 

So, August is here, and I’m taking a blog break until the leaves fall, back on 13th September 2017.

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