Review: The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole (Aged 13 ¾)

Second chances, anniversaries and life imitating art dominate the behind-the-scenes subtext of Bruiser Theatre Company's production of Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole (Aged 13 ¾), hereafter Adrian Mole.

Bursting with ideas, at times exhaustingly, it is energetic and inventive, intelligent concepts aligned to a slim but popular plot. In other words, exactly Lisa May's vivacious cast and crew would do. Except there's more to it. This time.
For Bruiser and the late Townsend have quite the history.

A patron of the company, Townsend saw her most famous character originally given a "bruising" twelve years ago, and his return to the Belfast stage on both Mole's "fiftieth birthday" and the twentieth anniversary of Bruiser seems fitting. If that weren't enough, Adrian Mole himself and the love of his life Pandora are played by the soon-to-be-married (at the time of writing) Adam Dougal and Colette Lennon. Joining them on stage are another real-life couple, Orla Mullan and Keith Lynch, and Gerard McCabe, all multiple role players.

With this cast, Stuart Marshall's scholastic (for want of a better word), suburban and open-ended set, Carla Barrow's versatile costuming and Matthew Reeve's nimble musical direction, that age old question of what could possibly go wrong comes to mind before the play has even begun.

It's enforced by an opening number as good as anything Bruiser have ever done – the whole cast, dressed as schoolchildren, provide a rhythmic and tempestuous introduction to the time period, packed with 1980s pop culture references. It's spirit-lifting and inspirational, like several individual moments in the whole of Adrian Mole.
And yet it feels alien to the narrative.

When Mole begins reciting his diary to us, the shift from comic cabaret to family dramedy is awkwardly sudden, the story of Adrian, his parents, his dog, his school and of course Pandora existing in a vacuum.

The production plays more like a series of sparky, clever sketches than a cohesive play, which works nicely with the complete works of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde's dialogue but less so with Townsend, who in my view demands a stronger investment in her central character.

The cast and production team often appear as if they are battling, if admittedly succeeding, in elevating dated material ravaged by time and inspirations. True, even today Adrian Mole retains a good grasp of social struggles, conformity vs. individuality and broken or embarrassing families – but what about Friends? Or The Inbetweeners?

It's an unfortunate and frustrating quandary which lingers in an otherwise impressive production which, when it hits the spot, does so quite extraordinarily. The greatest strengths of the "split personalities", especially Lynch, Mullan and Lennon, are thrust into the limelight in a second act that properly allows the cast to release any signs of unease. McCabe exhibits genuine sad sack pathos as the cuckolded Mr Mole.

Lynch relishes the caricatured aspects of his roles, like the sadistic side of a power-cutting electrician ("Do you think I enjoy doing this, son? You're wrong, because I do") and Mullan is both uproarious and (deliberately) unsettling. But the stage ultimately belongs to Lennon - a change in vocal pitch, costume and the slightest touch of make-up is all it takes to bring out the lovers and (yes!) grandmother in her.

Her songs are beautifully performed, her chemistry with the dependable Dougal as strong as you'd expect. It may well be one of the performances of the year.

Hampered by structure and source material, but redeemed by its production, acting and ideas, Bruiser's Adrian Mole is a curiosity, but a powerful, worthwhile one. Call it The Curious Incidents Of The Dog, The Parents and The Object Of My Affection. (And the play is as much a mouthful as that title is.)

Simon Fallaha

The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole (Aged 13 ¾) ran until October 7 in The MAC, Belfast, and tours Ireland from October 10-15, finishing at the Playhouse, Derry.

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