“The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4” by Sue Townsend is a book which has outlived generations to become an iconic book… a must-read for teenage boys everywhere on their 13th birthday. Over 35 years after it was first published, its impact is still being felt every time somebody new reads it.
So, the challenge of turning this well-known YA book into a fully-fledged musical was always going to be a steep one – putting music to a story that doesn’t follow many traditional West End stereotypes and needing a cast of teenagers to play all of the lead roles. But, Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s adaption at the Ambassador’s Theatre in London’s West End does not back down without a fight.
The musical follows 13 ¾ year old Adrian Mole (played by Rufus Kampa), an awkward teenage boy trying to do all of the things that 13-year olds are trying to do – break free from his parents grip, find out what makes him “him” and find his first love. What’s most impressive about this is how, despite the musical being rooted in the 1980s, all of the themes are so relevant. There might not be any mobile phones and “LOL” might not yet be invented, but this doesn’t make the story any less relatable.
Taking place over the course of 12 months (starting and ending on New Year’s Eve) it’s set-out as a diary, with Mole returning to his book to introduce each scene. Through-out there are ups and downs – from falling in love for the first time, to having his first love stolen by his best friend (haven’t we all been through that?!) to then winning them over again… to getting bullied… to making new friends… rebellion… learning new skills (in Mole’s case this is playwriting, which leads to a hilarious Nativity scene in Act 2) and, one of the tearjerkers in the production, going through his parent’s divorce.
The production is charming and self-aware; the Ambassador’s Theatre is one of the smallest in the West End, so it doesn’t have Wicked budgets. But, it doesn’t claim to. Adults play the role of classmates (dressed in school uniform and hairbands!) when they need to, props don’t always work and dance moves result in some bad footing. But, in a way, that adds to the charm and relatability of the show.
Where the show does fall behind is in some of the storytelling. Act 1 ends in a strange place where you’re unsure where the whole show is going (which led to some audience members physically going… out the theatre and not returning), although this is resolved by the end of the show where you’ll either be laughing or crying (depending on how the story relates to you).
The teenagers prove worthy actors for the West End, at times performing more realistically than some of the adults who resort to Panto-esque qualities to deliver their scenes. The singing is also closer to what you would expect from an Off-West End performance (and you probably won’t be humming the music on the way out), but that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the show.
No matter your age, “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4” at the Ambassador’s Theatre is an enjoyable evening – one that puts you through ALL the emotions and is a totally honest portrayal of teenage life.
The teenagers are incredibly impressive, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously – which is refreshing in a West End theatre. Whether you’ve read the book or not, you’ll find a part of yourself in this uplifting production which makes one thing clear: Adrian Mole is as relevant now as he’s ever been.