Matilda, Annie, and School of Rock may be employing myriad youngsters on the West End, but the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre’s new musical proves that there’s plenty of youthful talent to go around. Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ is an often enchanting but rather overstuffed adaptation of the first book in Sue Townsend’s beloved series, a late 20th century bildungsroman depicting adolescent life in Leicester. With another round of cuts and restructuring, Brunger and Cleary will have a great show on their hands, but they can happily leave this terrific cast and production team untouched.
Luke Sheppard calmly carries on establishing himself as London’s clearest, cleverest musical theatre director (following this summer’s Working at the Southwark Playhouse and last season’s In the Heights), animating every moment of the show and smoothing out its unevenness with his witty, well-oiled staging. Tom Rogers’ rolling set pieces sail in and out, effortlessly transforming the space, while Rebecca Howell’s choreography matches Sheppard’s directorial energy and precision.
Heading up the cast are a quartet of young teenagers (three casts rotate in the roles): on press night, Benjamin Lewis in the title role with Asha Banks as Adrian’s love interest Pandora, Amir Wilson as his best friend and rival for Pandora’s love, and Connor Davies as the school bully. All four give vocally assured, mature, and emotionally detailed performances. Lewis builds an instant, strong rapport with the audience from his first wordless stare, and he conveys Adrian’s good-natured precocity with a combination of wise-beyond-his-years drollness and wide-eyed sincerity. Davies makes a comic marvel out of his relatively small role (including a couple moments doubling as the Mole family dog) – like his castmates, his clear theatrical intelligence makes him one to watch for in the future.
Among the six adult actors, Kelly Price and Dean Chisnall stand out as Adrian’s wayward, warring parents, with Price pairing with Lewis for a few particularly touching scenes. Barry James has some sweet moments as tender-hearted, elderly grump Bert Baxter while Lara Denning shows off a stunning belt in an impressively sung but dramatically unnecessary appearance as Adrian’s father’s part-time lover.
Adapting an episodic diary (Adrian never misses a daily entry) into a full-length book musical presents a series of challenges. For the most part, Cleary’s warm, sprightly music and the (generally) well-crafted, wry lyrics she writes with Brunger prove the pair to be eager and able to capture Townsend’s spirit in their score. (Paul Herbert’s zesty orchestrations, under Alex Parker’s music direction, sound fantastic.) The missing piece is a consistency of style and tone that the writers haven’t quite achieved yet.
The most vital element to the book’s success was Adrian’s voice and viewpoint, always zealously self-evaluative but often misreading his relationships and family situations. Cleary and Brunger are on safest ground when Adrian’s centre-stage: his monologues and songs take off with a clarity and affability that I found even more endearing than the Adrian of the original books. How can that singular quality be preserved, though, when Adrian stops speaking or singing? Too often here, there’s no sense that we’re hearing and seeing the other characters through the filter of Adrian’s imagination and interpretation, the principal delight of the book. Sometimes, that does come through, as in an impassioned musical confrontation between Adrian’s mother and grandmother, which Adrian observes from the doorway. Since we experience this moment through Adrian’s eyes and ears, it’s as if the heightened singing represents our hero’s intensified perception of this scene: that works well.
Least successful is an endless tango seduction number between Adrian’s adulterous mother and their neighbor: if Adrian’s not watching and doesn’t understand what’s going on (but we are, and do), why is this relationship, a serious one according to the story, sketched in thickly drawn caricature (unsurprisingly, Cleary’s music tends towards the uninventive only when Adrian’s not controlling the action)? In other words, Adrian really needs to be onstage and observant much more frequently – maybe for the whole show – in order to focus the tonal discrepancies within his diarist’s lens. The show could also trim some of its fat and abandon some of the many fleeting events from the book which have been expanded here – after a Matilda-like school-wide revolt, a full-blown nightmare sequence, and a lengthy nativity-play-within-a-play, it feels like one too many distractions from the central, poignant plot.
That central storyline, Adrian making sense of his place within his own family, rings true and packs an emotional punch amidst the excess. Catch this iteration for the excellent cast and crisp production. Catch the next one for what might well be, with a little oiling, the UK’s next big musical hit.
Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 is playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until September 9.
Photo: Alastair Muir