‘Adrian Mole the Musical’ (as we’ll call it) is a charming homebred adaptation of a charming homebred story about a charming homebred gawky teenage ‘intellectual’ who, despite the gawkiness and the intellectualness, gets the girl and triumphs at life. Director Luke Sheppard’s production has it all: dodgy knitwear, thick-rimmed specs and cute kid performers. It’s also an adaptation of a book of just the right vintage to be nostalgically remembered by people now old enough to be on the look out for a summer hols musical to take their own kids to.
If that sounds cynical it’s because Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s musical version of Sue Townsend’s killer kids’ novel – which first ran at the Menier a couple of years back – isn’t as charming as it should be. Short flashes, especially pre-interval, of charm occur, mainly because Adrian, with all his underdog attributes, is easy to root for. There’s also a likeable ramshackle quality to the whole production which, when compared to the average super-shiny offerings of the West End, induces an irrepressible (if illogical) urge to support it, a bit like wanting to vote for Britain’s Eurovision entry just because Graham Norton mentions that the guy’s nan is watching at home in Basingstoke.
The child performers (appearing each night as part of a rotating cast) are also good. Of the cast I saw, Rufus Kampa was impressively confident narrating the pseudo-poetic musings of the spotty adolescent and Rebecca Nardin was very funny as prissy pony-club Pandora.
Yet so many bizarrely tone-deaf choices have been made on the part of the creative team. One problem is that, despite what the publicity claims, the ’80s cultural references have (unsurprisingly) aged, but instead of embracing this and going for full on vintage kitsch, they’ve kept in jokes and reference points on the assumption they’ll mean the same now as they did then.
The other big problem is that the ‘heart-warming’ storyline is based around Adrian’s mum returning to her marriage with a man who ‘drinks too much whisky and throws his weight around’. However much the musical makes clunky on-the-nose references to Greer-era feminism, it ends up feeling oddly Victorian in its values. And no one finds that charming.