Against the odds, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ is an energetic, sharp and witty triumph.  I say ‘against the odds’ because in the over-extended franchise Olympics, Adrian Mole would be in a straight fight with Bridget Jones for the right to lose to Harry Potter in the final.

Anxious, bookish Sue Townsend‘s anxious bookish teen was a joy and a delight when he first emerged blinking and pre-pubescent into the sunlight of 1981. Seven successively less successful sequels, a radio adaptation, a 1984 stage version, and a 1985 television series confirm his place in the history of fictional protagonists, but unlike Potter which can claim some universality, Adrian’s life is anchored in his provincial Leicester domesticity.  And in the 1980s.

The wit and wisdom of Luke Sheppard’s production, polished from its initial outing at the Leicester Curve, is to capture the period in as much faithful detail as possible – some of the props decorating Adrian’s bedroom are absolute gems sourced by designer Tom Rogers – and to drive it home with terrific vocal and choreographic energy.

To keep up the pace, Rogers’ design features scene changes where the sets are pulled and pushed in and out of cupboards by all the cast: I’m not sure how these responsibilities were apportioned but it’s a tribute to her energy that as Grandma, Gay Soper can manhandle a set of fitted kitchen units and a worktop.

The cast is a touch too compact – I missed Tanya and Ivan Braithwaite, Pandora’s bourgeois Marxist parents – but still six adults have to work to the point of perspiration, doubling and trebling as well as appearing as supernumerary children in all the classroom scenes.

Dean Chisnall as Adrian’s father George, and Kelly Price as his mother are especially authentic, and Lara Denning has fun combining Adrian’s class teacher Miss Elf with George’s leopard-print mistress Doreen Slater who powers one of the best-timed numbers in the show. As Pauline Mole’s love interest Mr Lucas and ‘Pop-Eye’ Scruton the headmaster, John Hopkins doesn’t seem to have been given the same directoral steer, and overacts all his characters to cartoon standards.  It’s initially funny, but ultimately unbalancing.

Composer Pippa Cleary and her partner book/lyricist Jake Brunger deliver a confident score – the comic songs are crisply written, the ballads are sweet and effective without being overly sentimental, almost the equal of Billy Elliott’s ‘Letter from Mum’, and there are moments in the purposeful anthems like the first act closer ‘Take A Stand’ that could echo Les Misérables or even opera.

The kids are tremendous: Lara Wollington gave Pandora an unexpected warmth, and Edward Hooper was an outstanding Nigel with great comic timing – although when I was a boy actor of his age I knew everyone else’s lines and my lips moved, too – but Guillermo Bedward, whose name doesn’t appear in the original cast lists, was a near-perfect Adrian and when the company stepped back to give him a richly deserved extra bow, I guessed he’s newly drafted in to the team and felt fortunate to have caught this extraordinary young actor (seen in The Braille Legacy) making his Moley debut.

 

until September 9

 

Trivium: top price at the Menier Chocolate Factory is now £53.  If you’re going to charge that much, you could afford to put in some decent seats.