After having two successful runs at Leicester Curve and Menier Chocolate Factory, Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary transferred their production of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole the Musical to Ambassadors Theatre in the West End last year, with the late Sue Townsend, author of the Adrian Mole novels, working with Jake and Pippa at the start of the musical adaptation. Over the years, Jake and Pippa have worked on many productions together, and wrote their first – Jet Set Go! – while at university, and it has since been revived at this year’s MT Fest at the Turbine Theatre. In 2018, Jake and Pippa headlined their first concert at Live at Zédel, and separately, Pippa runs Pippa’s Poppets for children under the age of five, and Jake has written his first feature film Love Sarah, starring Celia Imrie and Bill Paterson, which was released earlier this year. Talking with us, Jake and Pippa speak about transferring Adrian Mole to the West End, working together on productions and their solo projects.
Last year, your production of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole the Musical had its West End transfer at the Ambassadors Theatre, how was it having the show open in the West End after the original runs at Leicester Curve and Menier Chocolate Factory?
Jake – It’s incredibly cliché to say it was a ‘dream come true’, but to be totally honest it really was! I remember going into central London just so I could see the marquee going up outside the theatre; one of those proper pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moments. But this show has always been a passion project from the outset – this wasn’t a show cynically written or produced to transfer; just one we adored making and have always been so surprised at every step by the outpouring of love for it. We weren’t a blockbuster show by any means, but a feelgood fan favourite.
How was it having Sue Townsend involved at the start of the production and adapting her work for the musical?
Pippa – It was such a privilege to work with Sue. She really was the kindest, and most generous of people – she sold us the rights to the book for just £1 when we were only in our mid-twenties with just two fringe shows under our belt. I think she just saw that we had the right spirit for adapting Adrian’s story. We are incredibly sad she never got to see the finished show – she passed away the year before we opened.
Can you tell us about working with the cast of the shows and seeing the different child casts perform?
Jake – Well, the magic, and horror, of working on a show with actual thirteen year olds is that they grow! So quickly! Our original Curve cast are now eighteen and nineteen and when they came to see it in the West End they were drinking pints and are almost unrecognisable now. We’re very proud of them. They’re all going onto the most phenomenal high-profile roles now: Sam Small was recently the lead in The Nest on BBC1, Amir Wilson is Will Parry in His Dark Materials, Sebastian Croft was nominated for a BAFTA and Imogen Gurney pops up in lots of things on TV, to name just a few. We can’t wait to see what they all do next.
What was the first musical you worked on together and how did it feel seeing it released?
Pippa – Our first show was Jet Set Go! – we wrote it when we were students at Bristol University and we took it to Edinburgh where it became a bit of a fringe hit and transferred to London for subsequent seasons at Theatre 503 and Jermyn Street. It was so exciting to be up in Edinburgh and have such a buzz about the show, although our venue was tiny and only seated about eighty people, but when you’re flyering you make it sound like you’ve sold out the London Palladium!
Jet Set Go! was revived recently at MT Fest, how was it revisiting it?
Jake – It was lovely but quite a strange experience to be honest – it had been a decade since we first did it, so to get an old show out of the trunk and dust it off brings back a lot of old memories of a very formative time in our life, particularly as it really kickstarted our career together. But it was a very fun few days and the audience reception was fantastic; there’s still such an affection for that show. Obviously the coronavirus version of air travel would look very different now!
Do you have a process of starting work on a new musical?
Pippa – It will always start with working out the ins and outs of the storyline and where the songs fit within that. In the case of our three shows for Singapore Repertory Theatre, we always knew we were adapting well-trodden children’s stories, so we’d always try and put our own spin on it. But mostly we just sort of tentatively write a synopsis – a few pages – then use that as a guide as we start writing. But it really is just a guide – the original outline for Adrian Mole still changed as we went through, despite being adapted from a novel. There was a draft of the show with cult character Queenie in, for example, who didn’t make it into the finished musical.
Had you both always wanted a career writing your own musicals and how was it getting started together?
Jake – I never thought that’s what my life would be, but weirdly it all makes sense in retrospect: we were both absolute musical obsessives as children – we watched all the Disney films and were both very lucky to have parents who took us to the theatre regularly and indulged that passion. Starting out together was weird though – we didn’t really know how to behave around each other, but once we got stuck in the work flowed quickly. We now work very instinctively in the room together and finish each other’s sentences.
What advice would each of you give to those starting out in the industry?
Pippa – Try and get your work on in any way possible, be that a reading, or a workshop, or – if you can – in a production at a festival, or drama school or on the fringe. There are great new spaces in London now – The Vaults, New Diorama and, of course, both Southwark spaces – doing some brilliant new musical work. In a tiny theatre you have to work really hard to keep the audience’s attention and it’s a great way of seeing what works and what doesn’t; far more so than something staying on the page for years. Of course, now is a great time to get people to perform work in online concerts, so it’s worth reaching out to people if you have material you want to try out.
In 2018, you headlined your own concert at Live at Zédel – how was it?
Jake – Oddly enough, we’ve never really focused on the cabaret side of things, but we thought we’d do a concert to celebrate ten years of writing together, although I was reluctant to advertise that it had been ten years as we still want people to think we’re starting out in our early twenties! But no, it was lovely – we invited four actors who have all played a big part in our career so far, and our good friend Rosemary Ashe – who was in Adrian Mole – was our guest star and sang a song from our new show in development. The whole thing was just really jolly and fun. You can watch it all on YouTube if that tickles your fancy: https://www.youtube.com/brungerandcleary
Can you tell us about being involved with On Hope: A Digital Song Cycle?
Pippa – On Hope was a concert streamed over three evenings in the real thick of the coronavirus lockdown, and our friend Victoria Saxton who organised it asked if we would write a song in response to the coronavirus pandemic, be that humourous or otherwise. The song we ended up writing was far more thoughtful than we thought we’d do and it was a lovely event to be part of. I don’t think it will be performed very much in the ‘real world’ as the lyrics are so time specific – you can now do most of the things in the song that you couldn’t when it premiered. Still, it is a lovely, specific memento documenting the strangest of times. You can listen online here: www.youtube.com/TheOtherPalace
Can you say anything about the productions you’re currently working on together and separately?
Jake – We’re doing a new musical for a cast of almost entirely over sixties, who are hugely unrepresented in main roles in musical theatre other than as quirky ‘comedy elder’ supporting parts. It’s an unconventional love story that is incredibly sad but – hopefully – very funny too. When we did the reading last year, Claire Machin (who played one of the younger parts I must point out!) said she couldn’t see the script for tears – and that’s when you know it’s doing what it should. That’s in quite advanced talks to open in 2022 – coronavirus permitting, of course. We also have a couple of other things in the pipeline that we’re itching to discuss but won’t be able to for ages, sorry! Shows take a long time to come to fruition – many, many years.
Can you tell us about Pippa’s Poppets?
Pippa’s Poppets is a small business providing music and drama for children under five in Central London. I love teaching and inspiring kids and it felt like a natural progression from my work as a composer. All creatives need a side hussle to try and get some stable income to support yourself financially. Obviously now it’s tough as nurseries are currently restricting visiting teachers but I can’t wait for us to be back up and running at full strength again.
How do you come up with the ideas for your original songs for theatre and children?
I normally sit at the piano and scat a few melodies; often nonsense lyrics will come out of my mouth which will then take as a guide when we come to writing the actual lyrics. There isn’t one hard and fast process, it can take anything from thirty minutes to many weeks of rewriting to get a song right. My goal is always to create something hooky and catchy so I am always thinking about the parts of the song an audience might be able to hum and that propels me forward.
Your debut film Love Sarah has been released this year and opened in cinemas in July, can you tell us more about this?
The whole thing has been very strange, to be honest. We had our world premiere at Glasgow Film Festival in February, and were about to have the London premiere in March when obviously corona cancelled everything. However, in New Zealand – where they managed to get Covid under control and cinemas reopened with a vengeance – the film went to #1 at the New Zealand Box Office and likewise in Australia it went to #4. It did a small opening here in the UK at the handful of cinemas it reopened in, but cinemagoers are – understandably – a little more reluctant here to go back. It’s a really small film shot on a tiny budget but with a phenomenal cast headed up by Celia Imrie and Bill Paterson (aka Fleabag’s Dad!). However, the only thing anyone’s really looking at is the cakes – designed by Ottolenghi – which are literally like food porn! It comes out on DVD later this year – it’ll make a good Christmas present for a baking fan!
How has it been writing your debut film and seeing the finished work?
I can’t believe it’s happened to be honest! It was a script I wrote many years ago now after the producer spotted a tiny fringe play I wrote at Pleasance Theatre Studio and thought I’d be right for it. We worked on it on-off for a few years and then suddenly I got a call on Christmas Eve 2018 (literally!) saying it was going to start shooting a month later! When the producer told me Celia was going to be in it, I genuinely didn’t believe her. I’m now writing two films for Studiocanal, which is surreal but amazing. I love watching films, so I feel very lucky to now be writing them.
Follow Jake & Pippa on: