“You may be 13 but you’re still an adolescent boy”
After premiering at the Curve Theatre in 2015, Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s musical adaptation of Sue Townsend’s tale of Leicester’s most famous teenager has undergone its own version of puberty, re-emerging at the Menier Chocolate Factory for the summer. And those growing pains seem to have been worth it as The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ has matured beautifully, a powerful example of how musicals need to be allowed to develop, resulting in this case in a fantastic new British musical.
Luke Sheppard’s production certainly benefits from the intimacy of the South London venue but where it now excels is in its emotional intensity. The scenes between Adrian (played by Ilan Galkoff at this performance) and his mother Pauline, an achingly superb Kelly Price, are just heart-breaking, as he struggles to realise just how far her women’s lib-inspired independence will take her from him. I was reminded that reading this book was in fact was one of the main ways I learned about divorce and that scarce comprehension is captured perfectly here.
Elsewhere, the show evokes the 80s period with gentle but definite charm. Charles and Di’s wedding, shellsuits and day-glo lycra, a nascent Thatcher premiership, illicit porno mags, school discos, all of which and more throw the hormonal Adrian into disarray as he also deals with the implosion of his parents’ marriage, his first mad crush on new school-friend Pandora, and spots, and bullies. Above all though, Brunger’s adaptation of the book has a beautiful, entirely uncynical warmth to it, which allows it to be most fun indeed.
So classroom scenes are filled with the entire cast donning school uniforms (including Gay Soper who plays Grandma the rest of the time!), John Hopkins lifts his shirt to give us a body roll, the avant-garde Nativity is a genuine hoot and Tom Rogers’ ingenious set design facilitates the speediest of scene changes between it all. Cleary’s score feels refined too, pastiching widely but feeling more of itself, a clearer sense of its own identity whether sung by stars of the future – Galkoff, Lara Wollington (Pandora) and a scene-stealing Edward Hooper (Nigel) – or the more experienced hands of the excellent Price, Dean Chisnall and Lara Denning.