Sue Townsend’s 1982 novel spawned a series of sequels, a radio and TV series and a West End musical that played at Wyndham’s in 1984. Now, over 30 years later, the Leicester teen Adrian Mole is still suffering growing pains and so is this bright but not yet quite breezy enough new musical version of his life story.
It makes some elementary mistakes: where Adrian’s diary tells his story entirely from his own point of view, we often here get adult-only perspectives, as his grandmother (vivaciously played by the incorrigible Rosemary Ashe) lets rip, for example, at her philandering daughter-in-law. Also, Adrian’s estranged parents sing of missing their former lives. This usurps Adrian’s own voice, which is the entire point of the diary and its unique pubescent view of his world.
As such, the book by Jake Brunger drifts in and out of its central focus, however sweet and appealing the music of Pippa Cleary is and however smart Brunger and Cleary’s lyrics are. They seek to make the show abrasive, pungent and gritty, by turns, though it is perhaps never quite witty enough.
Luke Sheppard’s modestly scaled production fields just 10 actors, including four youngsters, to populate the entire show, but with choreographer Tim Jackson he manages to make it seem busy and full. Above all, it feels refreshingly human-scaled in Tom Rogers’s appealing simple cut-out backdrops of houses.
Like Billy Elliot and Matilda, this show’s predecessors for putting a child hero/ine onstage who must hold the central focus, it demands a lot of its lead, and four boys share it here. At the performance reviewed, Toby Murray was a bespectacled wonder, perfectly embracing the divide of growing self-awareness at his rapidly changing body and emotions yet with a still wide-eyed innocence.
There are also rotating teams of youngsters to play Nigel (Adrian’s best friend), Barry (the boy who mercilessly bullies Adrian), and Pandora (the girl who Nigel and Adrian fall for), and there are again scene-stealing turns from each, with Harrison Slater’s Barry at the performance seen resembling a young James Corden.
The adults have a job competing, and there are occasions where if they can’t beat them, they join them to play kids as well, which is a not entirely comfortable juxtaposition, either. Nor does it help that Cameron Blakely has to double up as Adrian’s headmaster and the man who steals his mother from his father, while Amy Booth-Steel has to triple up. They’re both agile and versatile performers, but there’s inevitably confusion.
Only the kids and Neil Ditt and Kirsty Hoiles as Adrian’s parents have the opportunity to deepen as characters instead of just comic caricature, and Ditt in particular has moving moments as a man cut adrift from the certainties of his life when his wife leaves him.
If the fundamental structural storytelling of the show is resolved, there could be a strong addition to the roster of family musicals here.
Dates: March 7-April 4, 2015, PN March 17