It’s something of a surprise that Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole hasn’t been stuffed into a stage show since the 1980s, so successful are the anxiety-filled diaries of her pimply adolescent protagonist.
It turns out there’s a good reason for that, and it’s the same reason this new musical adaptation – seen first in Leicester in 2015, then again at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2017 – doesn’t really work: Mole just isn’t musical material.
Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary (music and lyrics) give it a good go, cramming most of the events of Adrian’s first outing into two-and-a-half hours of chirrupy tunes and sparkly set-pieces – Adrian fretting about his spot-flecked face, Adrian deciding to be an intellectual, Adrian adoring Pandora, Adrian watching from the sidelines as his parents’ marriage falls apart.
But Luke Sheppard’s production, although powered by plenty of candy-coloured pizzazz, can’t capture the subversive spirit that made Mole so delectable on the page. As a diary, this story managed to be both a confessional teenage tale, and a slyly witty portrait of class-conscious Thatcherite Britain; as a musical, stuffed with skip-along showtunes, it’s far too syrupy and saccharine. Anodyne, almost, and Adrian was anything but anodyne.
It’s not the fault of the hard-working, multi-roling cast. A quartet of adolescent actors ably rotate the central role, and there’s a particularly funny performance from John Hopkins as the sleazy, smarmy lover of Adrian’s mum.
It’s all very polished: fine as a family-friendly, summer-holiday show, but disappointing for devoted fans of the fiction.