“simply unmissable, irresistible, audacious and adorable; intelligent and invigorating.”
Midway through “Operation Mincemeat”, the musical from Spitlip, one of the characters quips that ‘you couldn’t write this!’. Based on true events, it embodies the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction adage. However, there is nothing strange about the truth that this show is unmissable, irresistible, audacious and adorable; intelligent and invigorating. That reads like the closing tagline of a review, so I’m wondering where I can go from here. On a Musical Development timeline, “Operation Mincemeat” is still a fairly young sapling, having premiered at the New Diorama Theatre only in 2019. They, too, must be asking where they can go from here. Because quite simply put, it’s already there! It’s got it all.
Based on the Allied invasion of Sicily in the Second World War, it tells the story of how two members of the British intelligence service managed to deceive Hitler by (dubiously and possibly illegally) obtaining the corpse of a Welsh tramp who died eating rat poison, dressing him up as an officer, planting false documents in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, and dropping him into the waters off the southern coast of Spain. The following morning it was dredged up by a fisherman. Although Spain was technically neutral, the documents still found their way into German hands. These documents detailed the Allies’ plans to invade Sardinia, when in fact it was Sicily all along. The Germans fell for it hook, line and sinker and, to cut a long story short, the liberation gathered speed. Yes – you couldn’t write it!
Outlandish as it is, SpitLip manage to embellish it further with a goldmine of quirky ideas, characters and scenarios, beautifully and joyously crafted songs, more laughs than you can really handle in one evening and even the odd, serious message thrown in for good measure. The multi rolling, gender-blind ensemble adopt a host of personalities amid a whirlwind of scenes and songs. The score is eclectic, encompassing rap, rock, swing, sea shanties, dance, dubstep, hip-hop and ballads to name a few; with leitmotifs recurring in perfect rhythm to the showstopping numbers that drive the show.
The writing and composing credits are attributed to SpitLip, which comprises David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts. Cumming, Hodgson and Roberts make up the cast joined by Claire-Marie Hall and Jak Malone. I could exceed my wordcount reeling off the individual attributes of each cast member but, in truth, none needs to be singled out. Hagan, the Musical Director, is on keys with Ellen O’Reilly on bass and synth bass and Lewis Jenkins on drums and percussion. It would be a crime not to mention Sherry Coenen’s lighting and Mike Walker’s sound design. This is a show where each ingredient (not forgetting Jenny Arnold’s choreography and Helen Coyston’s costume) blends together to produce the perfect concoction. With parts this great it’s hard for the sum to be greater – but it manages.
The real-life Operation Mincemeat was a success. One that changed the course of history. Although Spitlip’s “Operation Mincemeat” probably won’t change the world, it will make its mark in the world of musicals. Every note, sung or spoken, in this show serves a purpose. Even the throwaway adlibs and asides. I’ve already used up my closing tagline, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat. “Operation Mincemeat” is simply unmissable, irresistible, audacious and adorable; intelligent and invigorating. I wish I had a few more hundred words to play with here, but if you want the detail, just go and see it. It’s unmissable. Did I say that already…?
“a work of significance and spirited potency,a deep and intelligent examination of people and themes too rarely presented on stage”
A desire to discover roots and gain a sense of belonging drives the absorbing new play Homing Birds, which comes to the Tara Theatre in Earlsfield at the end of a short autumn tour.
Award-winning writer Rukhsana Ahmad’s story is simple and thought-provoking, if a shade predictable, but the well-drawn characters and sparkling performances take it to a higher level altogether.
Produced by the always exciting and risk-taking Kali Theatre company (who specialise in developing and touring contemporary work by women writers of South Asian descent) Homing Birds focuses on an earnest young doctor, Saeed, who was sent to London as a refugee after the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Brought up by a kind British couple he decides he wants to rediscover his family and his heritage back home after the death of his adoptive mother, especially wondering if he will ever see his much-loved sister again.
It’s a well-crafted drama that portrays the pain of separation very well – in this case the adoptive father coming to terms with the death of his wife and their past together and the young man mourning his “mum” as well as the loss, physically and emotionally, of his homeland.
As well as showing us the “settled” life Saeed enjoys (and appreciates) in London after being forced to leave home with less than a day’s notice, the play explores how memories of the past can be romanticised. Saeed has a rosy remembrance of boiled sweets and old songs rather than the war that pushed him away from his family and homeland. What could so easily have been another play about the impact of war on individuals becomes something much more interesting and challenging.
As Saeed Jay Varsani is a revelation and definitely a name to watch for the future. He breaks the fourth wall in this charming performance space sufficiently to allow the audience insight into his thoughts and nightmares without resorting to obvious dramatic soliloquising to a front row from whom he is often only inches away. It is a character we love immediately and Varsani makes it a joy to follow Saeed’s journey of discovery and to share in the different facets of love he experiences.
It is important that any member of the audience can have an idea about the difficulty in tracing roots and feeling one belongs somewhere, especially when one’s knowledge of the place in question relies on questionable memories and the horrors of news headlines. It is here that the writing is most effective and Varsani is always a credible pilgrim, who we just know will be rewarded in the end.
Mona Khalili plays Saeed’s caring sister Nazneen in flashback and a health worker in present day Kabul with a delicacy and understanding. She demonstrates a sacrificial strength in Naz’s decision to marry in order for her brother to have enough money to seek asylum in the first place and her gentle portrayal stands in contrast to the abominations of war which have surrounded her for so long.
As straight-talking Afghan politician Rabbia Suzanne Ahmet gets her teeth into a role that is both shocking in its sense of ambition and commendable as she tries to help Saeed in his quest by encouraging him to return to Kabul to work as a doctor with Medicins Sans Frontieres. She earns several of the few laughs in the play through her appetite for power and no nonsense lust for justice for a people weighed down by history and experience.
John O’Mahony manages to make much of his role as Michael, Saeed’s adoptive father, battling with his own loss yet displaying a strength and support for Saeed. It is a shame that his character rather fizzles out as he also deserves the positive ending of a hope-filled play.
Director Helena Bell ensures the pace never slows without allowing the play to shoot off and miss the tender moments. Huge credit to Helen Coyston for an imaginative and realistic set, doubling as a London home and Kabul, with extra praise to Dinah Mullen for an exciting and atmospheric soundscape.
Homing Birds works on many levels: not only is the male character strong and determined as he faces personal, political and realistically tough issues, but Ahmad also introduces gritty women not frightened of speaking out about taboos and provoking debate about arranged child marriage and other controversial concerns involving women.
If the climax is signposted after just a few minutes and everything is wrapped up a smidgeon too easily, this doesn’t prevent Homing Birds being a work of significance and spirited potency,a deep and intelligent examination of people and themes too rarely presented on stage.