Review: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Luke Sheppard directs this new stage adaptation of Sue Townsend’s novel

The journals of fictional tormented teen Adrian Mole did not exactly stay 'secret' for long. Those beloved bestselling books were adapted for TV, radio, and stage, making the eponymous boy a voice of the generation that came of age in Thatcher’s Britain. But it wasn’t until now that Mole’s world was turned into a piece of musical theatre.

This show, based on the late Sue Townsend's 1982 novel The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, comes not only with the blessing of the author, but it also received some of her written input before she passed away in 2014. Otherwise, this is the brainchild of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary: a clearly talented duo who started working together when they were students.

What they and their team have created is a blast: an entertainment-focused spectacle with smart jokes and even better songs. The child performances sparkle. As for the adults, the funniest of the funny comes when they are called on to switch into a role of a teenager; their moustaches and grey hair overflowing out of their school uniforms.

What bothered some audiences during the musical’s initial run at Curve in Leicester was that young Mole's life had been neatened up when it made the jump from the page to the stage. Teenage dilemmas in the musical were smoothly concluded which were left tantalisingly unresolved in the books. Tweaks have been made since then, and while the revised version is no stranger to sentimental fare, you could also say that on a different level the Mole books can simply be enjoyed for their comic texture – and so can this show.

Mole's crush, Pandora, his warring parents, formidable grandmother, the lecherous Mr Lucas next door, 'Dirty Doreen' down the road, grumpy pensioner Bert Baxter, school bully Barry – many of the book’s most memorable characters are here, and their personalities have been inflated until they are literally all-singing, all-dancing reflections of young Adrian’s anguished adolescence.

It kicks off, like the first book, with the 13-year-old reciting his New Year’s resolutions. "Help the poor and ignorant. Starting, of course, with my parents." Misunderstood by those around him, perpetually lovesick and aware of his frustrated poet's soul, Adrian is on one hand the perfect picture of precociousness and pomposity. But then he is also obsessed with the length of his penis and popping the pimples on his face.

Townsend, it has often been noted, was not a teenage boy when she created Mole. But her stories are painfully relatable regardless of gender, or era for that matter. In its costumes, musical stylings, and endless references to the likes of C&A, Dallas, and the wedding of Charles and Diana, the lavish details of this show do pander to those craving an '80s nostalgia-fest.

But with a little bit of political messaging about social equality designed to apply to the here and now, it resonates with everyone, not just those who remember Maggie. It’s also about love, sex, and other universal things that you don’t have to be an ‘80s kid or a teenage boy to be interested in.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 9 September.

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