Holey Moley! It’s a miracle
Theatre at its very best is miraculous, or at least it amounts to the realisation of what seems impossible. Certainly, Luke Sheppard, the director of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾, must have been either brave or mad to have wanted to try to stage Sue Townsend’s much-loved book.
The late author had a rare affinity with the human condition and what action there is in her work is played out in the thoughts that run through the head of her spotty central character. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine anything that could ever have appeared at the outset more unstageable. And then, of course, there’s the seemingly intractable problem of finding not just one actor who could pass for Mole’s age and pass muster, but four, since there are strict rules about youngsters going on stage every night.
In a final sadistic turn of the screw for Sheppard, Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary chose to present him with a musical adaptation, which meant that the infant phenomena he’d have to find would also need to be able to sing and dance and understand movement.
All of these considerations meant I went to review this production with a heavy heart. And yet the miraculous happened. This show is confoundingly sublime. Seldom if ever have I seen a more wonderfully acted, intelligent and stylish piece of theatre with such universal appeal. Indeed, it’s far and away the greatest show I’ve seen in years.
Michael Hawkins, the 12-year-old who played Mole on the first night, is indeed a phenomenon. I watched in vain for a single lapse in concentration, but he was word perfect, he could sing and dance, and, above all, he could act. His fellow players were also faultless: Charlie Stripp, 12, hilarious as the school tough guy Barry; Cuba Kamanu, 13, a delight as his sassy friend Nigel; and Matilda Hopkins, 13, charming as Mole’s love interest Pandora.
These youngsters are so good it feels ageist to say what ages they are actually are. They are patently proper actors who deserve to be judged in their own rights. It’s just their ages make what they achieve so utterly extraordinary that I still can’t quite believe what it is they achieved.
The show appeals on so many levels, but what I love most of all about it is that it communicates the humanity of Townsend’s books. There’s an especially affecting line in it – beautifully delivered by Rosemary Ashe as Mole’s Grandma – when she tells the lad, after her parents split up: “Whatever they do, just remember, it’s not because of you.”
The other adult members of the cast, Amy Ellen Richardson and Andrew Langtree as Mole’s warring parents, John Hopkins in the dual role of a wicked headmaster and an adulterous neighbour, and Ian Talbot as a belligerent old invalid are all on great form. It is, however, Sheppard that the deserves the highest praise for bringing this amazing flock into line.