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Adrian Mole writer: ‘This is the musical Townsend wanted’

Toby Murray with the original cast of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4. Photo: Pamela Raith
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Last year, just before her death, author Sue Townsend made her mother promise to do one last thing for her. She made her vow to stay fit and healthy, so that she would make it to the opening night of  The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, a musical based on Townsend’s popular and much-loved book.

And last year, when plans for the musical’s premiere were officially unveiled at Leicester’s Curve, the musical’s book writer and lyricist, Jake Brunger, came face to face with Townsend’s mother, who relayed that story to him.

“I had to stop myself bursting into tears,” he recalls. “But that shows how much the musical meant to Sue. And her mum is a real character, so I can’t wait for her to come to opening night. She will be a formidable presence.”

This week, three years after Brunger and his writing partner Pippa Cleary first put the idea for an Adrian Mole musical to Townsend, the show marked its opening night in Leicester. When we spoke, Townsend’s mother was due to be among the audience, and even though Townsend herself did not live long enough to see it, Brunger is confident that the author of the book would have been happy with the end result.

“I feel very safe in the knowledge that she was 100% behind it,” he says, revealing that Townsend was involved throughout the entire process. “Whenever we had a question, we could call her or email her. She had a spirit of generosity, and – having been a playwright herself – understood that creating a piece of theatre was different to writing a novel. We could not have asked for a more friendly, welcome and supportive experience.”

The journey to the stage began when Brunger met with former Curve artistic director Paul Kerryson about another project.

During that meeting, he asked Kerryson if the theatre had ever considered a musical based on Adrian Mole, set as it is in Leicester. When Kerryson approached the theatre’s board about the idea, they were keen to pursue it. To date, the  theatre has spent £50,000 developing the musical and a further half a million  getting it to the stage.

“We said it was a no-brainer,” Curve chief executive Fiona Allan explains. “The only risk to us, at that time, was commissioning something we may not have liked.”

With Curve behind the idea, Brunger and Cleary set about seeing if the rights were available.

They weren’t initially, as a film was in development, but when that didn’t happen as planned, Brunger and Cleary found they had another chance.

Lewis Andrews as Adrian Mole. Photo: Pamela Raith
Lewis Andrews as Adrian Mole. Photo: Pamela Raith

They were told to write 10 minutes of their proposed musical and take it to Townsend in person to see what she thought.

“There have been lots of offers before,” Brunger explains. “And Sue looked me in the eyes and said ‘Why should we give it to you?’. I told her we were a new generation – we weren’t even born when the story first came out. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to tell the story now, because she thought it was old-fashioned. But, although we have smartphones and Facebook and Twitter, people still have to go through adolescence and puberty and spots. Everyone can relate  to this. It’s a perfect subject and I am amazed it’s not been done before.”

Townsend liked the pair’s proposal and together the writers began to create the musical, with Brunger penning the book, and Cleary composing the music. The pair write the lyrics together.

Cleary explains that together they went through the book’s chapters to  circle any words they thought would make a good lyric.

“I will take them and come up with  a hook, although it doesn’t always work like that,” Cleary says. “The better songs, however, are the ones where the hook comes first. Jake and I scat together – I play a tune and we record voice over  everything we do – with Jake singing/speaking dialogue over the top. It’s hard to say this is exactly how we work – but the best way to describe it is spontaneously and instinctively.”

Cleary adds that, musically, the show is “playful and quirky”.

“We are not doing an 80s musical,”  she insists. “It’s timeless. There’s big variety in it.”

Initially the show was written with adults set to play the roles of the children.

This changed over the course of the musical’s development, with the music already written needing to be adapted for children’s voices.

“We struggled with that,” Cleary admits. “We had to adapt and make key changes and make things simpler. That is a harder way of doing it. If I started it again, I would write the songs differently, as I would know from the start that  children were singing them.”

Allan adds: “But what I love about where we have ended up is there is some swapping around – we have a classroom scene where Rosemary Ashe, who plays the grandma, is in a hockey tunic playing a kid. They play around with it beautifully.”

Toby Murray as Adrian Mole with the cast. Photo: Pamela Raith
Toby Murray as Adrian Mole with the cast. Photo: Pamela Raith

Brunger describes Townsend’s book as the “bible for creating the musical” lyrically. He says he has put as much detail from the novel in as possible.

Because the book is episodic, Brunger says he had to realign events from  the story so they could have the “most dramatic impact”.

“So, in the musical, Adrian’s father breaks up with his mother at the same time as Adrian finds out Pandora is going out with his best friend,” Brunger says. “Those things don’t happen concurrently in the book, but I wanted it so they did.  I had to find the way of making an episodic book into a thrilling, tighter piece of musical theatre.”

He adds: “That is something I am most proud of – making a coherent piece out of something that is in diary form.”

The show was initially planned as  a production for Curve’s smaller studio space. At that time, it was a co-production with the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, with the two venues both lined up to stage the production.

However, following an industry showcase last year, Curve took on sole responsibility for producing the show.

“We had that classic ‘artistic differences’ thing, with regards to the scale  we wanted it to be,” Allan explains.  “We had initially thought that the show could work in their space and our studio space, but then we saw its much bigger potential – to make it bigger and put it in our main theatre.”

She adds: “After the London workshop we realised we were trying to make the show all things for all people – to make it work for us and them on both sides meant we were making too many compromises. We have a brilliant relationship with the Royal and Derngate, so were able to have those conversations.”

Kirsty Hoiles and Joel Fossard-Jones in Curve’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3⁄4. Photo: Pamela Raith
Kirsty Hoiles and Joel Fossard-Jones in Curve’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3⁄4. Photo: Pamela Raith

After the London workshop, songs were cut too. Allan explains that, when it was presented in London last year, the show ended with three couples – Adrian’s parents, Adrian and his love interest  Pandora, and Adrian’s grandmother, who ended up in a relationship with another character called Bert.

“That was a big deviation from the book, and it seemed too forced and  sickly sweet,” she says. “That was fed back to Jake and Pippa, so work was  done to change that. The second act has changed a lot.”

Brunger says that, since the workshop, he has gone back to the book and put even more from it into the musical – such as Adrian having a paper round. “I wanted to give the audience as many memories  of the book as possible,” he says.

Cleary also ended up writing a whole new song for the end of Act I. “I came up with a better tune,” she says, adding that she has to not be precious about cuts.

“I am actually more precious about  cutting verses from songs than removing whole ones,” she adds, explaining that tunes that get cut can be resuscitated at another date.

“There are a couple of songs in Mole that I didn’t write this year, and have been knocking around in various guises for some time,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re my tunes.”

With the show now complete and on the stage, the team are waiting to see how audiences will react.

Allan is confident audiences will like it, and that the show will put Brunger and Cleary, who are aged 27 and 28 respectively, on the musical theatre map.

“This is the biggest project they have done, with the highest stakes,” she says. “They deserve to be on the map as they are super-talented.”

And although the writing duo could be feeling the pressure right now, Brunger says he and Cleary have remained laid back so far.

“I felt pressure when Sue passed away and JK Rowling led the tributes to her,” he says. “I did not know how engrained the book was in popular culture. She was the biggest selling author of the 80s.

“But this is what Sue wanted. And  as long as you serve the author and the text – that is what good writing is about really.”

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