‘My father got the dog drunk on cherry brandy at the party last night. If the RSPCA hear about it he could get done…’ Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ is a hilarious classic, a riotous story of adolescence, love, hate, and a – in hindsight, extremely – dysfunctional family. Having started its life at the Leicester Curve in 2015 (and revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2017) the musical adaptation, directed by Luke Sheppard, arrives in the West End for a limited season, and is all that we could wish for.
Nostalgia is on the rise. Purposefully retro shows like Stranger Things are all the rage, and particularly the 80s are shamelessly back despite those terrible fashion trends and even more terrible hairstyles. It’s only fitting that a story such as Adrian’s is given the musical treatment, given its wide appeal to the children that grew up reading the books (and, presumably, their children). This musical adaptation, with book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary, follows the adventures of budding intellectual Adrian, his parents (and their affairs) and grandma, love interest Pandora, best friend Nigel, school bully Barry and retired communist Bert through an eventful year.
Adrian’s parents’ marriage falls apart, too-perfect-to-be-true Pandora arrives in school, and a tonsil-removal surgery all lead to the climax of the school’s Nativity play, and it truly is hilarious. Each of the young characters in the story are played by a rotating cast of four actors. In this performance Adrian is played by Rufus Kampa with charm and energy, and gives the character all of its pompous awkwardness. Rebecca Nardin as Pandora, Jeremiah Waysome as Nigel and Jack Gale as Barry complete this particular cast, and they are all fantastic. Nardin in particular shines as the posh new girl, with a lovely voice to match. The adult cast – who double as schoolchildren to side-splitting effect – are wacky and over the top (you see, the kids are kind of the sane ones in this show), particularly John Hopkins as passionate lover Mr Lucas, and Lara Denning as the fabulously tacky Doreen.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this musical is how well it reflects ideas that are now outrageous, so much so that every now and then the laughter is preceded by a collective gasp. Dad George (Andrew Langtree) is shocked when Pauline (a beautifully sounding Amy Ellen Richardson) says she’s going to get a job, remarks are made about the ‘role’ of women in the house or about women in general, about Thatcher looking like a man. I find it very revealing that all these assumptions and ideas are now met with disbelief, and perhaps one of the good things about this show is that it does not shy away from them, making a very good case for a reality check on the ‘good old 80s’. My only disappointment, however, is how the show treats Adrian’s mother Pauline, but then again, it is set 30 years ago.
While the songs, while they do drive the narrative, may not be that memorable, there are a few highlights like the rebellious anthem ‘Take a Stand’ and the hilarious ‘The Nativity’. The energy, however, and the ridiculousness is through the roof, and that is what makes this musical special: it’s funny (very funny), it’s touching and it’s over the top. The biggest compliment I can give is that it feels like reading the book again, and that is priceless.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ is playing at the Ambassadors Theatre until 12 October 12. For more information and tickets, visit the Adrian Mole the Musical website.