Friday, September 29, 2017

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ – nostalgic and energetic blast from the past (Bruiser at The MAC + tour)

I read the first Adrian Mole paperback in little over a day one Christmas. Although a few years younger than the acne-ridden protagonist, I suspect that I wasn’t alone in identifying with some of the insecurities portrayed in Sue Townsend’s fictional school boy who worried about things over which he had no control, was socially uncomfortable and lusted after people and goods that were out of his reach.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ is back on stage with Bruiser Theatre Company’s revival, marking the death of Sue Townsend in 2014 and her fictional character’s 50th birthday earlier this year.

Bruiser productions under Lisa May’s direction are often typified by their concentration on character over set, lots of music, physical tomfoolery, and an abundance of props. Now celebrating twenty years in business, their adaptation of Adrian Mole follows this familiar pattern, with a talented cast of five who burst into song and often change character and costume on stage while standing in front of a row of coat hooks.

While the paper diaries got under the skin of their author Adrian, the stage show shies away from being wholly driven by narration. Instead it is propelled by the marital difficulties between Pauline and George Mole (and in particular Pauline’s ‘friendliness’ with the slimy insurance salesman Alan ‘Bimbo’ Lucas next door) and pays much less attention to their son’s pubescent yearning for the treacle-haired Pandora who turned his heart upside-down when she sat beside him in his Geography class at a Leicester comprehensive.

Much of the subtlety of Mole’s insecurity that is expressed on the book page is lost in the theatre script and his parents attract little empathy and barely any pathos with their warped actions and flawed characters. In fact Mole and Bert Baxter, the older gentleman who is blessed with the schoolboy’s visits, are the only two likeable characters on the stage.

Adam Dougal has mastered the look and feel of young Moley with his several inches too short school trousers hinting at parental neglect. Colette Lennon adapts accent between her roles and plays Pandora with a posh lisp and a presence that nicely clashes with the heavy Leicester vibe. However, Pandora is largely incidental to the first half and the young pair’s relationship suffers from being rushed as the second half nears its conclusion. Her characterisation of Doreen Slater (George Mole’s mistress) is a welcome new character after the interval.

Orla Mullan’s singing soars above the rest of the cast and delivers a Pauline Mole who is beginning to discover her inner female eunuch and its accompanying harm. Two thirds of the cast of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) are back with the vocally sweet Gerard McCabe turning on a regional accent for George Mole and bully Barry Kent while Keith Lynch struts around in his dingy string vest as old man Bert Baxter as well as a set of deeply unlikeable characters.

Bruiser’s Adrian Mole has a high-energy and shouty beginning but settles down after twenty minutes to a less stressful pace. Setting the adolescent’s pathetic poetry (with its obtuse rhymes) to music injects lighter moments into the unexpectedly depressing story and the cast sing confidently with music director Matthew Reeve’s backing tracks, adding some vocal percussion on top of the harmonies.

The pre-show playlist and early scenes emphasise the iconic events of the 1980s – including Diana, Thatcher and the CND protest at Greenham Common – yet this is ancient history to the post-millennials in the audience. DOES ANYONE REMEMBER TELEGRAMS STOP

There’s something very dated about the 1980’s attitude on show towards women and feminism. It’s true to the period in which the book and script is based but it sets the story at a distance that the show struggles to overcome given the lack of prophetic prophecy about today. Yet there is something in Sue Townsend’s left-wing thinking and writing that punches through and resonates with the Corbyn era that has swept to power and overtaken the New Labour movement.

Adrian Mole himself would be delighted at the length of the show (and might add it to his graph of Norwegian Leather Exports) but the run time could do with some trimming. The harmonies are splendid and the cast and backstage crew’s mastery of props and costumes is staggering.

Full of nostalgia though short on empathy, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ takes you back – if you are old enough to remember – to teenage life in the 1980s. It’s energetic, tuneful, and well staged; but I left the theatre wondering why it hadn’t quite gelled when these elements were combined together.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Aged 13¾) runs at The MAC until 7 October before a short tour through Ballina, Mullingar, Lisburn, Dublin, Armagh and Derry.

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