Sue Townsend's painfully funny story about a nerdy teen gets a genuinely hilarious musical update
I was born in 1981, the year Adrian Mole turned 13¾, and realise I’ve perhaps spent the best part of the intervening years underestimating Sue Townsend’s iconic comedy novel. I can tell you why as well: my primary school headmaster used to read out extracts in assembly, but clearly spared us from all the more adult bits, meaning I got the impression that it was rather less sparkling and subversive than is in fact the case.
Or perhaps this utterly delightful musical from Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary knowingly amps up the wry silliness of ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾’ into something actively more adult-friendly. But any which way, it’s an unbridled hoot.
The year is still 1981, a fact that designer Tom Rogers has a huge amount of fun with (there is a lot of Lycra). Played on press night by Benjamin Lewis in a performance so note perfect I slightly worry about him, Adrian is a nerdy young teen from Leicester, too wrapped up in the trials and tribulations of school and his love for the sophisticated new girl Pandora (Asha Banks on press night – very funny and a cracking singer, surely a future star) to be entirely aware of the fact his feckless parents are clearly heading for a divorce.
The songs are good, flimsy fun: jolly pastiches of other genres, ranging from old-fashioned song and dance numbers to a hilariously overwrought synth-rock jobbie.
But it’s the full-throttle performances and exuberantly absurdist humour of Luke Sheppard’s galloping production that really bring the magic. Adrian’s consistent failure to understand what’s going on, combined with the increasingly bizarre set-pieces – culminating in an ‘avant-garde nativity play’ – and the extreme dedication of the cast (many of whom double or triple up roles) are totally winning, palpably subversive and, delightfully, entirely free of cynicism. Fans of the book will surely love it, but don’t let prior knowledge of the characters be an issue. In a desperate year for the British musical it’s a ray of giddy sunshine – book now so you can smugly say you caught it before the West End transfer.