REVIEW: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ – The Musical (Ambassadors Theatre) ★★★★★

Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ was originally published by Methuen in 1982. Selling over 20 million copies worldwide, it is now published by Penguin Books, has been translated into 30 languages and spawned seven sequel Adrian Mole novels. The novels have been adapted for the stage, radio and television and a new stage adaptation was recently commission for Curve and Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ – The Musical has a book and lyrics by Jake Brunger, with music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary. This critically acclaimed production is currently playing at the Ambassadors Theatre for a limited season, bringing Adrian’s story to life for a new generation of theatregoers.

Set in 1980s Leicester, this adaptation of Sue Townsend‘s best-selling book is a timeless tale of teenage angst, family struggles and unrequited love, told through the eyes of tortured poet and misunderstood intellectual Adrian Mole. One of the most enduring comedy characters of all time, he is the hapless, hilarious, spotty teenager who captured the zeitgeist of 1980s Britain, and this critically acclaimed production brings Adrian’s story to life for a new generation of theatregoers.

The Ambassadors Theatre cast include Rosemary Ashe (Felicia Gabriel in The Witches of Eastwick, Carlotta in the original cast of The Phantom of the Opera, Madame Thenardier in Les Misérables) as Grandma, Lara Denning (Mrs Wormwood and Miss Honey in Matilda, Ruthless The Musical, Mrs Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as Miss Elf/Doreen Slater, John Hopkins (Sir Francis Basset in Poldark, The Boys in the Band) as Mr Lucas/Mr Scruton, Andrew Langtree (Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day) as George, Amy Ellen Richardson (Ursula March in Sweet Charity at Donmar Warehouse, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical UK Tour, Merrily We Roll Along, Les Misérables) as Pauline and Ian Talbot OBE (Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray at Shaftesbury Theatre) as Bert Baxtor. Heading the children’s cast on press night was Rufus Kampa as Adrian (Ralphie in the European Premiere of Pasek and Paul’s A Christmas Story, The Musical, John Darling Peter Pan), Jeremiah Davan Waysome as Nigel (Caroline, Or Change, School of Rock the Musical, Kinky Boots, The Lion King) Jack Gale (James/Billy School of Rock The Musical, Young Don Lockwood Singing in the Rain) as Barry and Rebecca Nardin (Lee Bouvier Grey Gardens, Young Violet Violet) as Pandora.

As you would expect from their previous credits, the adult cast are extremely strong throughout. Not only playing their individual characters but also doubling as students with some hilarious costume changes and fun ‘wink to the audience’ moments. As Adrian’s long-suffering parents George and Pauline, Andrew Langtree and Amy Ellen Richardson are superb. Each showing a full range of emotion through marital issues, Adrian’s (very dramatic) tonsil surgery, divorce and reconciliation. Pauline’s honest lament on parenting Perfect Mother gave Richardson a lovely moment mid-way through Act One and George’s duet with Adrian in My Lost Love showed Langtree’s lovely vulnerability. Playing the dual roles of Miss Elf and Doreen Slater gave Lara Denning the perfect opportunity to flex her quirky, comedic muscles. As Miss Elf, Denning played a hilariously nervous over sharing emotional school teacher and as “wanton hussy” Dorreen Slater she attempted to befriend Adrian as his fathers’ other women while singing and dancing up a storm in fun Act Two number New Best Friend. John Hopkins has a lot of fun playing the dual roles of sleezy creepy Mr Lucas and as ill-tempered school principal Mr Scruton. Hopkins uses his versatile vocal to expertly portray both characters and had the audience in stiches as a result. Ian Talbot as the old communist Bert Baxter is hilarious throughout. Mid-way through Act Two, Bert starts to give Bert’s Advice only to stop his song abruptly as he needs the loo and advises “I shall be some time!” Rosemary Ashe as Grandma shines. Ashe creates a Grandma that is gentle with Adrian, hard on her own son George and combative with Pauline where needed. She’s a Grandma who is set in her ways, but a loving member of the family. Ashe uses her impressive vocal with great effect throughout the show and shows she can belt with the best of them in an early Act Two duet with Richardson How Could You? Brava!

The children’s cast is a ‘who’s who’ of up and coming West End performers. As Barry, Jack Gale was every bit the school bully, providing a menacing presence ready to taunt Adrian whenever the opportunity arose. A genius move from designer Rachel Canning saw The Dog as a patchwork puppet, also expertly manipulated by Gale. Jeremiah Davan Waysome was brilliant as Nigel, Adrian’s fashion obsessed best mate. Waysome brought impressive vocal and dance ability to the role and I really believed the relationship between Adrian and Nigel. Rebecca Nardin’s Pandora was absolutely perfect. As self-assured, worldly and driven Pandora, Nardin used her sweet accomplished voice to give an outstanding performance throughout as the love of Adrian’s life. As title character Adrian Mole, Rufus Kampa was faultless. Hardly leaving the stage, Kampa portrayed the woes and joys of Adrian’s spotty, misunderstood, intellectual existence (or lack there of) with expert confident aplomb. Much deserving of his standing ovation at the end of the show, Kampa and the rest of the child cast are the up and coming West End talent to watch. Bravo!

Sadly, Adrian creator Sue Townsend passed away recently and never saw this production (for which she sold the rights to for one pound). I’d like to think though wherever she is, she is tapping her toes and laughing out loud along with audiences every night. With an infectious score and a script as sidesplittingly outrageous as the original novel, this joyous production of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ – The Musical is nostalgic and heart-warming. The perfect summer holiday musical for the whole family!

Reviewed by Stuart James


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