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John Hopkins interview - 'I used The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole as a guide for my adolescence'
Last week, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger have adapted Sue Townsend’s novel into a fresh, energetic British musical in a joyous production directed by Luke Sheppard. We spoke to one of the show’s stars John Hopkins, who has worked on screen for many years as well as appearing the Globe and with the RSC, about bring the story to the stage, and what it’s like performing in his first ever musical.
What’s the story of Adrian Mole?
It is based on a much-loved Sue Townsend novel from about the 1980s. It’s purported to be the diary of a thirteen and three-quarter-year old. Adrian is a wannabe intellectual living in Leicester in the ‘80s. The joy of the book is that you experience it on two levels – you see what the actual events, and you see his experience of them and the fact that he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on around him. His family life falls apart, his affairs are had and he makes his first steps in love and poetry. You can really see what’s going on and there’s a funny disconnect happening.
Had you read the novel before you got the part?
I read the novel when I was around 11 years old. I read it as a sort of documentary guide to what adolescence would be like, which was a really bad idea. I remember reading it in the ‘80s when it first came out, it was very funny.
What’s your part in the musical?
I play a couple of antagonists. Mr Lucas, who’s the creepy next door neighbour who's quite interested in Adrian’s mum, and Mr Scruton who is a maniacal classic 1980s headmaster figure. Back in the days when corporal punishment was still a genuine threat at school.
What was it like revisiting the story as an adult?
I really remember the TV show. The word ‘intellectual’ became current around Dunstable where I grew up. I was quite bookish, and I remember the insult ‘intellectual’ being thrown at me on the street. But it did all come flooding when I revisited the story, all the joys and all the horrors.
You’ve worked a lot on screen and with the RSC, but have you ever done a musical?
It’s nice because I’ve never done a musical in my life. Hopefully that won’t be too apparent to the people who come and see it. I’ve been acting for 17 years in TV and film and lots of ‘straight’ theatre as they call it, but I’ve never done a musical. I’ve been close to getting parts in a couple of big ones, but without any experience at all. Then this came up, so I thought it would be a real opportunity to have a go at it and discover just how much I don’t know. It’s an enjoyable learning curve. And the Menier is a fantastic venue.
There are quite a few kids working on the musical, what’s it like working with them?
They’re fantastic. They’re genuinely so much more experienced than me. The kids really talk to us like we’re equals, but they talk down to me slightly because they’ve all done loads of things like Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We have three sets of them which is really fun because if you’re in any kind of long run, it’s great to have a different kind of energy each night. Different challenges or people offering you different things on stage. It’s a bonus.
I think Matilda is probably the ‘M word’ we try not to say. Adrian Mole is much more of a chamber piece, we only have 6 adults and 4 kids. We don’t have that kind of ‘flash, bang wallop’, but that’s now what we’re aiming for. When Adrian Mole was released, it was released as a comic adult novel about an adolescent, whereas Roald Dahl was a writer for children. There are touchstones: the difficulties of growing up, the insanity of the school system, your parents not really understanding you. We’re not trying to copy anyone.
It will be a show children see with their parents and grandparents, do you think the different generations will each take away something different from the show?
I hope it works like a really good Pixar film. When there are jokes that work on several levels and jokes for all ages. I think there’s really smart witty stuff, and there’s stuff that you’ll appreciate having gone through adolescence and come out the other side being monstrously disappointed by life. There’s also stuff that’s just funny across the board, dumb, physical stuff.
As this is your first musical, are there any other musical roles you have your eye on?
I used to say I’d like to play Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar. I have a stupidly deep voice. I’ll have to stretch my upper range, but we’ll see, maybe this will carry on and I’ll have a life in musical theatre after Adrian Mole.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Tickets are available now.