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Phil Willmott

Review: THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE at the Menier Chocolate Factory

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole If you were a teenager in the 1980's the character of Adrian Mole, geeky, pretentious and utterly relatable to, will be an old friend. His hilarious take on adolescence was captured by writer Sue Townsend in a fictitious diary, first a best selling book, then a TV series, then a play, then a musical, and there were several sequels. Adrian's faded from public consciousness in the last decade or so and, alas, Townsend died in 2014. All this makes this adorable, completely new musical very welcome especially as it transports us back to his first teenage incarnation and reminds us what fun it was follow his bumbling and humbling attempts to become an intellectual and a hit with girls.

The show that currently bares his name at the Menier Chocolate Factory (a much respected off-West end theatre in Southwark) began life two years ago, premiering at Curve Theatre in Leicester, Adrian's home town.

I've met the writers, Jake Brunger (words) and Pippa Cleary (music) and I know they suffered a heartbreaking disappointment when financing to move that first production fell through. Proving that good things can happen to good people a year or so later it was picked up for this transfer by enterprising producer David Babbani, the creative team have had a chance to rework it considerably and the resulting London production is proving as popular with critics in the capital as it did in the provinces.

The show is a carefully constructed balance of adolescent comedy laced with just enough family drama to root it in reality.

The show is a carefully constructed balance of adolescent comedy laced with just enough family drama to root it in reality. Spanning an eventful year in our hero's life we watch him fall in love and win the classiest girl in school, grow in confidence as a (terrible) poet, defy his terrifying headmaster, over come bullying and cope with his parents splitting up, their awful new partners and wondering whether they'll all be reunited by the end of Act Two.

But the added ingredient is a good dose of 1980s nostalgia for those of us who were there, with costumes and incidents like Charles and Diana wedding fever and school discos lovingly recreated.

When I saw it on the second press night the adult cast were joined by Benjamin Lewis as Mole, Asha Banks as his love interest, Pandora. Amir Wilson as his cool best friend, Nigel and Connor Davies as school Bully, Barry.

They are all a delight. Young Lewis has an expressive singing voice, has terrific comic timing and is equally adept at the pathos. Asha Banks already has a considerable track record in West End musicals, a former Matilda she has the looks, voice and charisma to be a formidable future leading lady. Wilson has played Young Simba in the past and retains Disney looks, swagger and charm. Davies is the most adorable bad-boy you'll ever see and also a great puppeteer. (He operates a puppet of the family dog)

The adults all make a vivid impression too. Somehow the story manages to incorporate them all having a solo song without the plot getting baggy. Pretty much everyone deserves praise but it's particularly enjoyable to see musical theatre veterans Gay Soper (playing Grandma) and Barry James (Grumpy neighbour, Bert Baxter) on top form.

It's a fun rather than innovative musical score and the writers have no shame in employing fail safe, audience pleasing song forms like tango and gospel. But it's so refreshing that no one here is trying to write the next Hamilton or be the next Sondheim. Under Luke Sheppard's assured, witty and fast moving direction it's all about having a great evening.

Highly recommended.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole