Review: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 and 3/4 – The Musical (Ambassadors Theatre)

The musical adaptation of Sue Townsend’s book arrives in the West End

Michael Hawkins as Adrian and Cuba Kamanu as Nigel
Michael Hawkins as Adrian and Cuba Kamanu as Nigel
© Pamela Raith

BBC Radio Four is currently repeating its broadcast of Adrian Mole: the Prostrate Years, where the once-teenage diarist has become 39, sad and dyspeptic. This jolly musical, on the other hand, based on the first book in Sue Townsend's clear-eyed epic, with a book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary, takes us back to his first, more optimistic incarnation. It's very good fun.

It's also a clever bit of marketing to bring the show – first seen in 2015 at Leicester's Curve, then produced at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2017 – to the Ambassadors just as the school holidays begin, as the perfect outing for teenaged children and their parents. The parents will like the 1980s references to Malcolm Muggeridge, Mrs Thatcher and Dallas on TV; the teenagers may recognise something of themselves in Adrian and his friends, as they struggle with the pains of growing up and the idiocies of the adult world.

The best lines remain Townsend's. "My new year's resolution is to help the poor and ignorant; starting of course with my parents," Adrian writes, poignantly. And the musical's greatest loss is her acerbic, ironic tone, her kindly yet fierce vision of a world going slowly mad thanks to the actions of its inhabitants. The book's greatest pleasures were always in the gaps between Adrian's high aspirations – "I read Pride and Prejudice last night. It is very old fashioned" – and the low compromises he has to cope with.

In place of this poised tone, the musical substitutes well-observed farce and high emotion. It is a very loud, rather tiring night; I found I was enjoying episodes such as the high-energy school disco and Adrian's alternative nativity play which sends Mary to the family planning clinic and makes the inn keeper an evil capitalist, while simultaneously wishing them just a little less broad and energetic.

The moments that worked best for me were the quieter ones; Adrian's mother Pauline's songs of regret and disappointment; the way that his love Pandora is always dreaming of doing good – in one of the wittiest lyrics she and Adrian sing of a world domination in which they "save the NHS/Dress the homeless from BHS" – the running jokes about the lessons of The Female Eunuch.

Yet there's no doubting the commitment and panache of Luke Sheppard's direction and Rebecca Howell's choreography which fill Tom Roger's slickly changing set with life and action. The cast seem to be having a ball. In particular, Amy Ellen Richardson brings the sweetest of voices and a real strain of sadness to Pauline and John Hopkins is tremendous fun as Mr Lucas, the deep-voiced charmer next door, sweeping her off her feet in a passionate tango.

But the show stands or falls on the kids at its heart and on opening night Michael Hawkins was a wonderfully confident Adrian, Matilda Hopkins a charmingly bolshie Pandora and Charlie Stripp all but stole the show as bullying Barry.