OPERATION MINCEMEAT at the Fortune Theatre
“hilarious from start to finish”
A little over four years ago, in an eighty-seater black box near Regents Park, there was a workshop presentation of a new musical about an obscure World War II intelligence mission centring around a homeless corpse. The joint collaborators were all in agreement that it was a bit of a crackpot idea, but the foursome ran with it. They called themselves ‘SpitLip’ and described themselves as ‘makers of big, dumb musicals’. Of the four (David Cummings, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Roberts), Hagan was the only one not to take to the stage. Instead, Claire-Marie Hall and Jak Malone were pressganged into the cast for the show’s first outing.
And they are there still. They are the first to admit that they never thought ‘it would go as far as this’. Along the way, though, the backers and the audiences have begged to differ. From the New Diorama, to Southwark Playhouse, to Riverside Studios and finally washing ashore in the West End. In retrospect, its transfer was inevitable for this “unmissable, irresistible, audacious and adorable; intelligent and invigorating” show. The quotation is from my review at Southwark two years ago – and it still applies. In fact, I could take the lazy option and copy and paste chunks of the original review (I won’t). Little has changed. Director Rob Hastie has been brought in to smooth the transfer to the figurative ‘bigger stage’. In essence, the playing space itself is no larger than either Southwark or Riverside. Ben Stones’ set and costume design adds gloss, right through to the ‘Glitzy Finale’ and Mark Henderson’s lighting releases the show from its budgetary shackles, but let’s face it – the show was already beyond improvement.
By its very nature it appears to be constantly on the edge of falling apart; an intended shambolic veneer that reflects the ‘fact-is-stranger-than-fiction’ story it tells. The real-life plot is too far-fetched to have worked, carried out by the brash and privileged but inept MI5 agents. Hitler needed convincing that the allies were not going to invade Sicily. “Act as if you do when you don’t… act as if you will when you won’t”. The lyrics from just one of the overwhelmingly catchy numbers epitomise the double bluffs that cram the book and the songs. To achieve this, Charles Cholmondeley (Cumming) hatches the idea to dump a corpse off the coast Spain, dressed as an Air Force Officer and bearing false documents that outline British plans to advance on Sardinia. Ewen Montagu (Hodgson) latches on to the absurd plan convincing Colonel ‘Johnny’ Bevan (Roberts) of its unfailing potential. Or rather of the lack of alternative strategies. The Germans were fooled completely. That’s not a spoiler – it is historical fact. Ewen Montagu even wrote a film about it years later – ‘The Man Who Never Was’. Throwaway snippets like these are scattered throughout the show, delivered with the flawless eye for satire by the company. Each cast member multi-role the numerous and outlandish characters and, irrespective of gender, always convincing in their attention to detail. It is ludicrous, scandalous, overblown and absurd; occasionally bordering on tasteless (all compliments).
“Operation Mincemeat” is a delight – hilarious from start to finish. But ingenious too. The comedy conceals its hidden depths. Beneath the Pythonesque book and beguilingly eclectic score lies a profundity that breaks through if you let it. “Dear Bill” (sung by Malone as the secretary Hester Leggett) is a ripple of pure poignancy. A simple, aching moment of personal expression that veils a global anti-war poem.
SpitLip never thought ‘it would go as far as this’. They have all stayed on board though, and it’s now going to be a long operation. The West End run keeps extending. At some point they might have to hand over the reins. The unmistakable chemistry that burns through the company is part of the attraction. The bar is set high for prospective cast changes. It is intriguing; not just to see where “Operation Mincemeat” (still their debut show) goes from here, but to see what else is up their sleeves. But for now, they have conquered the West End. Mission accomplished. Success!
Reviewed on 19th July 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Matt Crockett
Operation Mincemeat Earlier Reviews: