Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary have brought Sue Townsend’s hilarious, hapless and unforgettable character Adrian Mole to life in a new stage musical adaptation. With Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ (UK) now available to license, we caught up with the authors about the show and its timeless appeal.
What drew you both to adapting Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ in the first place?
Jake: I had actually played Adrian as a 13-year-old at my local amateur theatre group, probably because I too was a hapless pseudo-intellectual with terrible spots who thought I knew it all! But the story and circumstances were also very close to my own; I lived on a cul-de-sac in the East Midlands – in fact, my family are all from Leicester, where the book is set – and my parents had gone through a similar separation in my teenage years. So for me, it was so close to my own story; but it’s an incredibly relatable story for anyone who’s been a teenager.
How did your creative process work as a collaborative duo?
Pippa: We love bouncing off each other in the room, me sitting at the piano and Jake bounding up and down acting out scenes and doing different voices. We’ll then start singing and see what comes, and we always have the voice memo app going just in case we improvise any gems; the lyric ‘after a piece on violent dogs in Walthamstow’ came from that process and it was so utterly bizarre that we never considered replacing it! Then from those voice memos, we consolidate and keep refining until we have a draft of a song.
What are the challenges of adapting a novel for the stage – and how did you approach them?
Jake: I was initially quite worried because the novel was so episodic – literally day-to-day diary entries. But we quickly realised that there was a carefully plotted story that ran neatly through the book: Adrian falling in love whilst his parents’ marriage disintegrates. Piecing the two together into a coherent narrative was a very satisfying process. I was also aware that Adrian shouldn’t have too many lengthy diary entries or monologues to the audience, as that would get boring very quickly.
Do you have a favourite moment in the musical?
Pippa: The Nativity in Act 2 is hands down my favourite moment. It’s a real tour de force for the company, but always gets an excellent response.
Jake: “New Best Friend” is probably my personal favourite song, because I think it’s the perfect marriage of both our voice and Sue Townsend’s – a madcap cameo character that you only meet for one song, singing a big belty song with very mundane suburban lyrics about living in a ‘flat about the chip shop by the pub’.
Is there a secret to good comedy on stage?
Jake: Casting is the main ingredient: You just know when an actor is funny or not when you see them audition. When casting Adrian, it’s not just about being ‘funny’ though – as the whole point of Adrian is that he’s not(!) – but simply whether you want to spend two hours in that boy’s company. However, for the comedy to really land, the seriousness of the parents’ plight should also be played as truthfully as possible, as well as the moments like the Grandma/Pauline fight song. But on the whole, this is a show that doesn’t take itself seriously: it’s very tongue-in-cheek.
Why do you think Adrian’s character resonates so much with audiences?
Pippa: His misguidedness is simply endlessly amusing. Every time we’d go back to the book to find new lines – even many years down the line when we made revisions for the West End, which was its third production – we’d still laugh over and over again at how witty Sue’s writing was. But there is a little bit of Adrian in all of us: we are all judgemental pedants deep down, we just wish we had the guts to admit it.
Do you have any advice for companies looking to stage the show in future?
Jake: In our adaptation, the way that Adrian sees the world unfold around him has a heightened, fantastical quality to it. Although we haven’t prescribed too much in the stage directions, you can always look for additional visual humour in what characters are wearing, in the set design and props, etc. One thing to be careful of though is not to have Adrian with his head stuck in a diary – that will become very inactive. The idea of this adaptation is that Adrian talking to the audience is him writing in his diary: the audience are his diary. In the middle of conversations, he can just turn his head to the audience and tell us what he’s really thinking – and the more seamless that that happens, the better.
Pippa: Ultimately just have fun with it and you can’t go too wrong!
For more information about Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ The Musical, visit Concord Theatricals (UK).
Header Image: 2015 Curve Theatre production of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 The Musical (Pamela Raith)