tue 21/11/2017

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, Menier Chocolate Factory review – more than feel-good summer fun | reviews, news & interviews

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, Menier Chocolate Factory review – more than feel-good summer fun

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, Menier Chocolate Factory review – more than feel-good summer fun

Musical with its finger on the pulse of the 1980s and its heart in the right place

Family misfortunes: Adrian Mole (Benjamin Lewis), his parents (Kelly Price and Dean Chisnall), Pandora (Asha Banks) and Nigel (Amir Wilson)All images © Alastair Muir

Back in Margaret Thatcher’s middle England, teenagers got by somehow. Without recourse to wands or Ballardian games of extinction, we survived adolescence with the help of a story full of people we knew. People (a bit) like us. Every year I re-read Sue Townsend’s chronicles of Adrian Mole, hopeless lovestruck bard of Leicester. And each year he grew up with me, as experience uncovered the texture of Mole’s life. "Phoned Auntie Susan but she is on duty in Holloway." A line like that was simply information at first. A year or two later, it brought a smile, then a conspiratorial laugh.

Laughter is richly supplied by the Menier Chocolate Factory's translation of Mole’s first year as a diarist into musical theatre (originally staged in 2015 by The Curve in Leicester). More than any previous adaptation, the team of Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary (music and lyrics) has brought Townsend’s words off the page. Inevitably, Mole’s world is now viewed through the eyes of the grown-ups, and presented to a new generation likely to be unfamiliar with Garfield and the Norwegian leather industry. In crafting a feel-good piece, Brunger and Cleary dial down the innocent pride of Mole ("Intellectual Boy") as a diarist – like Kilvert or Pepys, unabashed by shame and humiliation – and amp up the glamour, the brassy confidence, of everyone around him.

Extended numbers such as the first-act finale ("Take A Stand") sometimes tread water while dropping the pace. But with strong performances throughout a knockout cast, the show’s sparkle quickly returns. Luke Sheppard’s direction (and especially Rebecca Howell’s sassy, period-aware choreography) keeps everyone on the move, best of all in the essential disco number ("Misunderstood"). Sets and costumes by Tom Rogers work as hard as the characters to put the Mole family’s misadventures in context, even if the idea of Adrian himself putting up posters of Leicester City or the Beastie Boys is a far cry from the self-styled intellectual who originally bemoaned the masses that would never see Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa, or thrill to a Brahms opera.Benjamin Lewis (Adrian) and Amir Wilson (Nigel) at the Menier Chocolate Factory, LondonIt doesn’t matter. In fact Adrian Mole the musical works best when it veers off-piste from Townsend’s original. An increasingly surreal second act climaxes in a school Nativity owing more to Jerry Springer than Godspell. Deservedly centre stage here is Pandora, Mole’s enduring love, in a performance of sensational composure and accomplishment by Asha Banks ("Look at that Girl"). She’s in danger of singing everyone else off the stage – but then Lara Denning has a leopard-printed, showstopping number ("New Best Friend") as Doreen Slater, and Gay Soper (Grandma) unveils an impressive Queen of the Night parody. Many of the best gags are smartly timed by Barry James as Bert Baxter. Pandora’s unforgettable parents may get the chop, but Kelly Price and Dean Chisnall bring the show’s rare moments of cut-to-the-quick emotion ("I Miss Our Life") as Adrian’s warring mum and dad.

Like the other teenage roles, the central character is shared between three performers. On the opening nights, Benjamin Lewis (pictured above, with Amir Wilson's assured Nigel) did Mole himself proud, nicely balanced between Adrian’s pretensions to introversion and the demands of a musical to put it all out there. He and the whole show fit the Menier Chocolate Factory’s intimate space. Whether they would survive the transition to a West End barn remains to be seen. I wouldn’t wait to find out.

@PeterQuantrill

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