LEICESTER council estate housewife Sue Townsend’s spotty teenage diarist has gone through many lives since the early 1980s.
Original stage monologue, when the central, older, character was called Nigel. Novel. More novels. Television series. Musical, with a script by Townsend and music and lyrics by Ken Howard and Alan Blakley. Play and junior play. Musical, with book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary.
Robert Readman’s York company, Pick Me Up Theatre, are presenting the British amateur premiere of the Brunger & Cleary version on an open-plan traverse stage that evokes both 1980s’ Leicester school rooms and house interiors.
The traverse design, with the audience to either side and on the mezzanine level above, cranks up the sense of combat and swimming against the tide, in this case the story of an awkward 13¾-year-old intellectual’s battles.
This is Adrian (Jack Hambleton) against the world, whether having to contend with playground bully Barry Kent (Guy Wilson); endless spots; disciplinarian, narrow-minded headmaster Mr Scruton (Adam Sowter), or Nigel (Flynn Coultous), his rival for school crush Pandora (Emily Halstead).
Or Bert Baxter (Ian Giles), the 89-year-old curmudgeon that Adrian has to deal with on his Good Samaritans visits; or teacher Miss Elf (Florence Poskitt), never marking his work as highly as he thinks he deserves, or his struggles in the family home, where mother Pauline (Toni Feetenby) is being distracted by smarmy, hands-on neighbour Mr Lucas (Andrew Isherwood), and his father, George (Alan Park) is at a low ebb. At least Grandma (Sandy Nicholson) is there to comfort him (and squeeze his spots).
Polymath Readman is as much a set designer as director and choreographer, and his playful set with doors to either side allows for the speedy addition and removal of chairs, and for heads to jut through drape-covered window spaces to join in ensemble numbers, reminiscent of sudden interjections in The Muppets.
Amid the constraints imposed by performing in pandemic times, Readman decided to keep his cast size trim, by having adults play children as well as the adults, aside from the four teenage protagonists, performed by the already name-checked Team Townsend on press night, alternating through the run with Team Sue (Flynn Baistow’s Adrian, Benedict Wood’s Nigel, Dotty Davies’s Pandora and Freddie Adams’s Barry).
This was an inspired decision, with extra fun to be had in seeing faces so familiar on the York stage revert to teenage tropes (much like in the casting for John Godber’s classroom comedy, Teechers), especially in the ensemble numbers.
Readman’s decision also enhances your appreciation of the young performers, Hambleton’s beleaguered Adrian narrating with a hangdog expression; Halstead’s posh but socially aware Pandora being every inch the head girl in waiting; Coultous’s Nigel staying both perky and pesky throughout, and Wilson’s Barry casting his black-clothed shadow with a panto villain’s glee.
Brunger and Cleary’s songbook is savvy and witty in its lyrics, if more workmanlike in its tunes, but keyboard player Tim Selman’s band (with Jonathan Sage on woodwind, Rosie Morris on bass and Clark Howard on drums) gives it plenty of oomph. So much so, the sound balance on Wednesday sometimes made it hard to hear Hambleton clearly when narrating to music.
Readman has picked a tremendous cast all round, both for his young leading lights, and everywhere you look among the experienced ranks; be it the face-pulling comic turns of Poskitt and Sowter; the sliminess of Isherwood; the squashed-face grumpiness of Giles; or the return to the fore of the recently lesser-spotted, top-notch Feetenby and Park as the troubled parents,
Nicholson’s Grandma warms you like a cup of tea. Oh, and look out for opera singer Alexandra Mather as you will never have seen her before, vamping it up as naughty neighbour Doreen Slater.
Technically not a Christmas show, nevertheless the diary’s timespan from early-Eighties’ New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Eve means it sits well in the winter season. Diary note to yourself: book a ticket NOW.
Pick Me Up Theatre present Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, The Musical, John Cooper Studio, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until December 18, 7.30pm, except December 11 and 12; 2.30pm matinees, December 11, 12 and 18. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.