Thursday, 4 July 2019

REVIEW: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾: The Musical at the Ambassadors Theatre

For almost forty years, Sue Townsend’s books have delighted readers of all ages. Adrian Mole and his friends have been translated into 33 languages and sold over twenty million copies worldwide. Despite being set in the 80’s, these beloved characters and the world they live in are timeless. Composer-lyricist duo Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger quickly earned the trust of Townsend, despite not being the first to pitch a musical version. So taken with their ideas, she sold them the necessary rights for just £1. Townsend very sadly passed away in 2014, never seeing the musical premiere in her hometown of Leicester for the following year.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾: The Musical is a constant thrill. We follow Adrian’s quest to win the heart of new girl Pandora Box, and the collapse of his parents’ marriage, with Mole himself narrating through his regular diary entries. Cleary and Brunger supply an original score packed full of numbers that feel like classics by the time the second chorus comes around. Gone are the days where child actors sing nursery rhyme lyrics and give two-dimensional performances. In this show, the juvenile leads are intelligent and sink their teeth into complicated material, clever lyrics, and melodies that often stray from the beaten path. Shows like Matilda and School of Rock have proven just how much our youngest stars are capable of nowadays, and this show certainly allows them to soar.

Luke Sheppard does a masterful job as director at the helm of this production. Not once is a punch line misjudged, or the pace dropped. Equally, Mark Collins does a fine job leading the six-piece band and recognition must also go to musical supervisor Paul Herbert for his stunning arrangements.

As Adrian, Michael Hawkins gives a performance that would rival an actor 10 years his senior (and I saw his first performance). Intellectual Boy, which becomes his theme throughout the piece, sends chills across the auditorium. The role could easily be played by an adult fortunate enough to fall into the younger casting bracket, but much of the charm of this piece comes from the mix of children and adults. Seeing stage veterans Ian Talbot and Rosemary Ashe as school children sends ripples of laughter across the room.

The show is an ensemble piece in every sense of the word. Each cast member is treated to brilliant material and stage time is equally divided. Much like it Olivier winner Come From Away, everyone mucks in with scene changes, wheeling beds into wardrobes and urinals into doorways. Tom Rogers’ design is exciting, with
ink-splattered paper adorning the walls, and Adrian’s bedroom packed full of 80’s memorabilia.

The score is the perfect mix of light and dark. Songs like Misunderstood are anthemic, and during the interval audience members are head humming its motifs in the queues for the bar. Later, Rosemary Ashe and Amy Ellen Richardson lock horns with How Could You, which becomes painful to watch in the best possible way. Lara Denning steals the show with New Best Friend as Dirty Doreen, who sinks her claws into George Mole in Act II. Denning lets rip with jaw-dropping vocals both here, and at the shows encore. I Miss Our Life is yet another highlight, with Richardson tearing at our heartstrings, forcing us to analyse our lives and relationships in a moment that cuts deep.

John Hopkins garners some of the biggest belly laughs of the evening; both as Mr Lucas, the next-door lothario who attempts to woo Pauline, and Mr Scuton, the hideous school headmaster. Hopkins’ comic timing is unrivalled; leaning seductively on the hob and burning himself is just one example of his sheer brilliance.

For two splendid hours, we are transported back in time and find ourselves in our younger skins, worrying about spots, friendship and the school play. Whether you are a devoted fan of the original books or its various adaptations, or a complete stranger to Townsend’s work, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾: The Musical is utterly glorious.

Review by Ian Marshall

Rating: ★★★★★

Stalls: F4 | Price of ticket: £54.50

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