The making of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ the Musical

From a beloved novel to a smash-hit musical: script writers Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary reveal how a spotty adolescent from Leicester inspired their first big show. 

Rehearsals for Adrian Mole the musical © Pamela Raith
Rehearsals for Adrian Mole the musical © Pamela Raith

It was a wet morning in January 2012 when we first met Sue in her hometown of Leicester. She’d been up all night finishing her new novel, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Yearand was flat out exhausted. Accompanied by her husband Colin and son Sean, Sue was confused as to why she was there.

“We’d like to do Adrian Mole on stage”, we said, with what can only be described as a quivering squeak. After all, we were two naive 24-years-olds with only two tiny fringe shows under our belt. “But there’s already been a stage show in 1984, it ran for two years in the West End,” Sue pointed out, matter-of-factly. So far so good, eh?

Undeterred, in a flashy rehearsal room upstairs in the high-tech Curve Theatre, we nervously played Sue the first 10 minutes of the musical as we saw it: with the two of us playing and singing 10 different parts, including a dog, and doing all the voices between us. 

We finished on a big, jubilant high note (which has long since been cut by the way, 13-year-old boys are not built to belt like Barbra Streisand we later found out). And then, a deathly silence. A long, awkward pause hung in the air.

“Well, where’s the rest of it?” she asked, slightly impatiently. We told her that we were only here to speculatively pitch it to her, to see if she liked what we’d done. 10 minutes was all we had.

“Oh” she said, a little brighter. "Well go and write the rest of it then".

And that was that. Shortly afterwards, Sue sold us the rights for £1. Yes, that’s not a typo — one of the biggest selling books of the 1980s for less than a bag of chips! For two penniless arts graduates, it wasn’t just music to our ears, it was the only way we could possibly have afforded to write the show. We barely had enough for a glass of London-priced wine let alone to buy the rights to a multimillion-copy selling novel!


But more than that, it was a sign, loud and clear, of Sue’s sheer unwavering belief in us. Her altruistic offer, to this day, is the reason we are here with the show today, and incredibly demonstrative of Sue’s generosity, and slight madcap nature of doing things. "Oh go on then, why not?" I imagine was a phrase she’d uttered many, many times.

Her agent later told us they’d had requests all the time to do Adrian Mole on stage, but Sue had seen something in our youth and passion and sheer lack of cynicism about adapting the book that gave her the confidence to choose us as the team to adapt her best-known work. That we hadn’t been born when the book was published only awkwardly came out when Sue was talking about Charles and Di’s wedding, which opens Act Two, and we had to confess our ages. However, we’re the ones who now feel old when one of our Adrians — who was born in 2006 — confessed he didn’t even know who Diana was. No, really! And as for Esther Rantzen, also mentioned in the show, one young actor asked whether she was a famous poet...!

We set to work immediately. Jake even moved in with Pippa for a month to write around the clock, checking in regularly with Sue over phone or email. Sue was curious as to why we were interested in revisiting Adrian’s diary almost 30 years after its publication. Surely it had dated, she wondered? But that was just it, it hadn’t aged at all. Despite the internet and mobile phones and all of those awful modern things, spots were still spots, school was still school and boys still measured their things. These things don’t date, and the book's depiction of Adrian’s two parents separating as the result of an illicit affair still rings true with 42% of marriages ending in divorce. We knew that as much as this was a show with children at its centre, the poignancy and reality of the adults’ situation could be explored in just as much as depth — and we quickly found that heartfelt songs by Pauline, George and Grandma sat effortlessly alongside jolly repartees from Adrian. Sue’s writing appealed to every generation, and we wanted our show to do the same. 

In April 2014, we woke up to some terrible news; Sue had passed away aged just 68. We were absolutely devastated. She would never get to see its opening night, or meet the legions of children who would take on her iconic roles, or hear the laughter her witty lines still bring to audiences all these years later. But — with Sue having come from a theatre background herself — we knew, in true theatre style, that the show must go on.

Sue had signed off on the final draft of the show, and just under a year later it was finally time to unleash our all-singing, all-dancing Mole to the world. We opened in Leicester in 2015 (Sue’s home town, and also Jake’s Dad’s hometown; Jake was raised just up the road in Nottingham) and two years later we brought the show into London to the Menier Chocolate Factory, where our tiny show was nominated for the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.

Rehearsals for Adrian Mole the musical © Pamela Raith

We are now absolutely thrilled to bring this show to London’s West End, and hope that we have done Sue proud. To this day, we have had 13 boys (the irony!) play Adrian, and each of them brings a complete uniqueness to the role.

As a creative team, led by our incredible director Luke Sheppard, we have no stipulations about what we’re looking for, we just have a strong instinct if someone has the madcap observational qualities of Adrian. The boys — and rest of the ‘young company’, as they’re known — carry this show; Adrian is the Hamlet of children’s musical theatre, barely leaving the stage and singing in 13 songs. But our fantastic ‘adult’ company also bring bags of heart, soul and experience, are we are proud to have a truly multigenerational company aged from 12 to 76!

We could never have asked for a kinder collaborator than Sue. She trusted us enough to just get on with it — she was never meddling or interfering, but a fantastic sounding board to spark ideas off whenever we needed to. There was never any question that we wouldn’t adapt her book in any other way but faithfully, we never had a conversation about updating it to present day or relocating it to Mars(!).

The book captures a true slice of life in 1981 — Pebble Mill, shoulder pads and Thatcher loom large — but with our real-life teenagers centre-stage, its beating heart remains firmly in the present too. We dedicate the run, and all our runs, to Sue, and continue to raise a glass to her at every opportunity. 

Adrian Mole the Musical is running until the 12th October 2019. Visit adrianmolethemusical.com for more details.


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