Paul T Davies reviews The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 the musical now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre, London.
For those who were around when Sue Townsend’s classic character appeared in the book, and then TV, seeing Adrian Mole again is like catching up with an old friend. One that has barely changed or moved on, but the one that you realise you have a lot of affection for. Originally commissioned by Curve and Royal & Derngate, Northampton, the musical finally arrives on the West End, a little rough around the edges, (deliberately in some places), and full of affection and laughs.
Whilst some of the 1980s cultural references are way beyond younger members of the audience, the embarrassment and complications of puberty and the gawkiness of first love still remain true. Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s music isn’t going to break any ground musical theatre wise, with some of the tunes sounding like a children’s TV show from the 80s, but the lyrics are laugh out loud funny, as is Brunger’s book. The energetic cast, under Luke Sheppard’s zippy direction, is a joy to watch.
With the kid’s centre stage, it’s important they work together well. On my night, Rufus Kampa was a glorious Adrian, capturing perfectly the intellectual snobbery and gawky love-struck lad, gaining total sympathy from the audience. Rebecca Nardin was perfect as his love interest, the feminist and independent Pandora, Jeremiah Waysone great as best friend and not quite streetwise Nigel, and Jack Gale great fun as Barry the bully. Of the adults, John Hopkins steals the show as sleazy next door neighbour Mr Lucas, strict headmaster Mr Scruton, and is worryingly alluring as a schoolgirl in one of his supporting roles! As Adrian watches his parent’s marriage fall apart, Amy Ellen Richardson as Pauline and Andrew Langtree as George are, in turns, funny and poignant, and Ian Talbot provides some highly politically 1980’s incorrectness as communist pensioner Bert, and Rosemary Ashe’s Grandma raises many a laugh, as does Lara Denning as teacher Miss Elf and then slutty neighbour Doreen.
It’s a show that’s a little patchy- there’s a dream sequence that borders on outstaying its welcome, and the characterisation is hugely broad, poignancy is not mined for effect. But Adrian’s alternative Nativity is a hoot and hilarious, and the show may be cheesy but its heart is in the right place, with bags of charm that had me laughing out loud throughout.