Secret is out as Pick Me Up Theatre return with amateur premiere of Adrian Mole

Pick Me Up Theatre’s cast members: back row, Toni Feetenby, left, Alan Park, Ian Giles, Andrew Isherwood and Emily Halstead. Middle row: Adam Sowter, left, Flynn Coultous, Jack Hambleton, Florence Poskitt, Freddie Adams, Guy Wilson and Alexandra Mather. Front row: Sandy Nicholson, left, Flynn Baistow, Benedict Wood and Dotty Davies. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen Photography

DIARY entry, April 6th 2021. Robert Readman announces Pick Me Up Theatre’s Christmas show for 2021 will be the Broadway hit SpongeBob The Musical.

Diary entry, December 5 2021. No, it won’t be. Robert is directing Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ The Musical instead, booked into Theatre@41, Monkgate, York from December 8 to 18,

SpongeBob The Musical may yet re-emerge down the line in winter 2023, but Robert made the call to pick up Pick Me Up’s theatre-making for the first time since March 2020’s Covid-curtailed run of Tom’s Midnight Garden with the musical version of the trials and tribulations of Sue Townsend’s teenage diarist.

“It’s my kind of show,” says Robert. “I love British musicals; I loved the TV series and I loved Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books.

“Pick Me Up will be doing a season of works by British writers in spring 2022, with George Stagnell starring in both Billy in March and Shakespeare In Love in April, and when we got the chance to do Adrian Mole, I knew we had to do that as this winter’s show – though I didn’t actually know it would be the British amateur premiere until the writer [Pippa Cleary] told me.

Toni Feetenby’s Pauline Mole and Jack Hambleton’s Adrian Mole from Pick Me Up Theatre’s Team Townsend

“But it’s perfect timing for us to do the show now because the story runs from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve.”

Robert and musical director Tim Selman are working with a cast of experienced York hands such as Sandy Nicholson, Andrew Isherwood, Adam Sowter, Florence Poskitt, Alan Park and Alexandra Mather and two sets of teen talents, rather sweetly designated as Team Sue and Team Townsend.

“They’re all aged either 13, early-14 or late-14, but they’re different in height, so what I did was to match each team to Adrian’s height. Team Sue – Flynn Baistow’s Adrian, Benedict Wood’s Nigel, Dotty Davies’ Pandora and Freddie Adams’ Barry – all turned out to be from Lancashire, apart from Benedict,” says Robert.

“Team Townsend – the taller Jack Hambleton’s Adrian, Flynn Coultous’s Nigel, Emily Halstead’s Pandora and Guy Wilson’s Barry – happen to be all from Yorkshire.

“Although Sue Townsend was a Leicester writer, and set her stories there, we’ll be using northern accents, which suits the characters just as well.”

Team Townsend’s Flynn Coultous as Nigel and Emily Halstead as Pandora in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾

In the cast too is veteran actor and drama teacher Ian Giles, who played his part in Sue Townsend’s rise as a writer. “In the summer of 1977, I was appointed artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, and one of my innovations was to create a writers’ group for local people,” he recalls.

“The then unknown Leicester housewife Sue Townsend was among those who came along. She was in her thirties, from a council estate, had worked as a factory worker and shop assistant, and was very shy. She only attended because her partner, Colin [Broadway], told her to give it a go, though she used to love reading the likes of Dostoevsky.”

Ian put Sue forward for a Thames Television Writer’s Bursary and her manuscript for Womberang duly won the Thames Television Playwright Award, setting her on the path to writing plays for the Royal Court and the Adrian Mole series of books.

Coming full circle, Ian, now 72, will play grumpy old Bert Baxter in the Mole musical. “He’s an 89-year-old curmudgeon, so that should be easy for me!” he says, delighted to be reconnecting with his Townsend past.

“I’m surprised the Adrian Mole books aren’t on the school curriculum, because the issues raised are still so pertinent. The first book is 40 years old now, and the books were like the Harry Potter books of their time. Only the Bible and Shakespeare outsold them!”

Toni Feetenby’s Pauline Mole and Flynn Baistow’s Adrian Mole from Team Sue

Re-joining the discussion, Robert says: “We love Adrian Mole because it’s a boy expressing how awful life is when you’re going through puberty. The young cast find it very funny, but it’s interesting to see how differently they interpret their characters, especially the two Adrians.

“What works best is the fun Sue had in having all the characters being seen through Adrian’s lens.”

“And with a working-class ethic to it,” says Ian. “Sue was writing from council-estate  experience, growing up not far from where playwright Joe Orton grew up. There’s a lot of Sue in the character of the mother, Pauline.

“It’s all pertinent to the 1980s when it was written, but it also resonates with all teenage experiences that people go through.”

Robert adds: “Because of the ‘80s’ retro culture that’s going on now, young people are wise to that, which makes it a good time to do this show.

Time to brush up: Ian Giles’s curmudgeonly Bert Baxter makes his point to Jack Hambleton’s Adrian Mole

“But what’s nice about the music is that Jake and Pippa have not pastiched the Eighties’ pop style. They’ve made their own style of music, so you will enjoy the story being in a musical structure, with some lovely balladry, and a lot of sadness and heartbreak in there, and the parents and classmates being given good songs as well as the leads.”

The John Cooper Studio will be set up as a traverse stage with the audience in raked seating to either side and on the mezzanine level above. “The set design will feature two houses, one to either side, with everything going on in between,” says Robert.

“The reason I’ve done that is because all the scenes are quite short and it moves at a pace, so you can’t have lots of scenery to move around, slowing it down.”

Now make a date in your diary to see Adrian Mole, Pandora and co at Theatre@41.

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, December 8 to 18, 7.30pm, except December 11 and 12; 2.30pm matinees, December 11, 12 and 18. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

How actor Ian Giles played his part in the rise of Adrian Mole writer Sue Townsend

Ian Giles’s Bert Baxter and Jack Hambleton’s Adrian Mole in Pick Me Up Theatre’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, The Musical. Picture: Matthew Kitchen Photography

YORK actor and drama teacher Ian Giles played his part in the rise of writer Sue Townsend in his days in Leicester.

Now, 72-year-old Ian is to play grumpy old Bert Baxter in Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ in Pick Me Up Theatre’s musical production at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from December 8 to 18.

“In the summer of 1977, I was appointed artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, and one of my innovations was to create a writers’ group for local people,” he recalls.

“The then- unknown Leicester housewife Sue Townsend was among those who came along. She was in her thirties, from a council estate, had worked as a factory worker and shop assistant, and was very shy. She only attended because her partner, Colin [Broadway], told her to give it a go, though she used to love reading the likes of Dostoevsky.”

What happened next, Ian? “The chairman of the group managed to get hold of a manuscript off her for Womberang, and on the strength of that first play, I put Sue up for a Thames Television Writer’s Bursary, and she got it,” he says.

“Michael Billington [the esteemed Guardian theatre critic], who was on the panel, told me it was the funniest thing he had read in years.”

Womberang won the Thames Television Playwright Award, and Townsend was on her way, writing Bazaar And Rummage (1982) and The Great Celestial Cow (1984) for the Royal Court Theatre, Chelsea.

Townsend first penned what became The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ as a one-man show: a workshop production starring Nigel Barnett as Nigel, rather than Adrian, Mole, recounting the diary he had written when he was aged 13 and three quarters.

“We think we then changed it to Adrian, because Nigel Mole sounded too like Nigel Molesworth [the subject of Geoffrey Willans’s series of books about life in English prep school St Custard’s], but the BBC say they changed it!” says Ian.

Either way, Adrian became the name when Sue was invited to convert the play into a novel. “She was a dramatist first and was very happy to write the novel as it meant she could use only one voice, Adrian’s, to tell his story,” says Ian.

“Published by Methuen in 1982, it went stratospheric,” says Ian. So much so, The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ and its 1984 sequel, The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole, made Townsend the best-selling British author of the 1980s. A further six books in the series took sales worldwide past the 20 million mark.

Inevitably, the books were adapted for the radio, television and theatre. “Sue worked on the first musical version, which was a play with songs, and then came the first West End theatre version,” says Ian.

Robert Readman’s York company, Pick Me Up Theatre, will be presenting the latest musical adaptation by Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary (music and lyrics), premiered at the Leicester Curve in March 2015.

“They’d formed a partnership while studying music and contacted Sue about doing a musical, but sadly she died [on April 10 2014) before the premiere,” says Ian.

Now the story comes full circle for him as he takes to the stage as Sue’s character, the 89-year-old curmudgeon Bert Baxter. “Sue became resident writer at the Phoenix, and I moved on, and now the theatre is called the Sue Townsend Theatre in the place where I worked for four years, when  she took her first step into writing plays.”

Pick Me Up Theatre present Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, The Musical, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, December 8 to 18, 7.30pm, except December 11 and 12; 2.30pm matinees, December 11, 12 and 18. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.