“Just call the English public schoolboys – we’ll sort it all out!” Words that are far from reassuring in everyday life actually pay off when it comes to Operation Mincemeat, the hit British musical that has transferred its way around several Off West End theatres before landing in its new West End home, the Fortune Theatre. It’s written by SpitLip (David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson & Zoë Roberts) and directed by Robert Hastie, with music direction from Joe Bunker; the show is currently set to run until the middle of August.
Thanks to the film of the same name (but wildly different tone) that was released last year, you may have some grasp of the story already – and therefore understand why it was the ideal candidate for a comedy musical adaptation – but for anyone who is unfamiliar, buckle up…
It’s 1943, and the Second World War is dragging on with no clear end in sight. The Allied Forces have identified the island of Sicily as a key target for invasion, as they can weaken Axis power through Italy – however, it’s packed with troops that they somehow need to make disappear. Military Deception is called upon to come up with misdirection pitches, and the unlikely team of Ewen Montagu & Charles Cholmondeley manage to persuade Colonel Bevan to pick the “borderline psychopathic” Operation Mincemeat. From there it’s a race against time to fake a watertight paper trail, write a love letter and, erm, find a corpse… But will Hitler fall for this precarious, yet ingenious, scheme?
One of my regular criticisms of new musicals is that they have too many songs, but what Operation Mincemeat has brought into focus is that actually those shows simply don’t have the right songs. SpitLip’s musical has absolutely no filler; every song is memorable and serves a purpose – be it to drive the plot along or to get inside the minds of the characters. It’s never static, and as such is never allowed to stagnate or sit too long on one idea. It’s a stroke of genius to throw several different musical genres out there (other than the lyrical content, you would never think that All The Ladies, The Ballad of Willie Watkins & Sail On, Boys were from the same show), as it keeps the audience on their toes and actively engaged in the action; if every song were in the same style there’s the very real risk of them all blending into one. The combination of catchy riffs and Tim Minchin-esque verbal dexterity results in an absolute treat for the ears.
What the show also has – that other new musicals often lack – is an excellent book. Thanks to the company’s background in comedy, the show is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny throughout and is packed full of terrific one-liners, hilarious recurring themes & unexpected callbacks – and all while maintaining its identity as a full-on musical. Its government setting allows for natural digs at current politics, as well as a very welcome piss-take of stereotypical Britishness. You can sense the influence of the likes of Airplane!, Monty Python & Mel Brooks (Das Ubermensch definitely feels like a modern-day successor to the whole Springtime for Hitler concept), but with the company’s own theatrical twist.
Though this is a comedy through & through, that doesn’t mean it’s just funny; the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, that’s for sure, but it also manages several moments of real poignancy. This is especially apparent in the scene containing Dear Bill, as the usually stoic Hester forces herself to be vulnerable for the good of the mission – contrasts in tone like this complement each other brilliantly, and make for a very well-rounded production. It’s also notable that time is taken for the lead female characters to be fully fleshed out, but all the while moving the narrative along; their thoughts are explored and provide context for the audience – plus Jean’s newbie status gives us extra insight.
For anyone else who has been following the show’s progress from either New Diorama, Southwark Playhouse or Riverside Studios – you will not believe your eyes when you see Ben Stones’ set and costume design. It is West End in scale & quality, but is still full of charm and packed with lots of fun little details; without giving any surprises away to anyone who has yet to see the show in its current venue, my personal favourite designs have to be Spilsbury’s attire (particularly during his first scene) and the various doors dotted around the stage – not to mention the entirety of the Glitzy Finale! Clearly, a painstaking amount of time, effort & money has gone into getting the aesthetic just right, and this really enhances the end product – hopefully it’s also indicative of a lengthy stint at the Fortune.
Operation Mincemeat boasts perhaps the finest execution of gender-blind casting in recent times, with the cast of five effortlessly switching between multiple characters through the course of the show; Natasha Hodgson and Jak Malone are especially noteworthy as Montagu and Hester, both embracing stereotypical middle-aged male & female tics, respectively, but without veering into parody. Malone flips masterfully between Hester & Spilsbury, two very different but equally well-defined characters – and Hodgson has the audience in hysterics simply with a throaty “Charlie…”. Claire-Marie Hall’s vocals are absolutely superb (most notably in All The Ladies), and she’s excellent as the rather dopey Steve; Zoë Roberts is clearly having a whale of a time playing several very silly boys (deploying some marvellous facial expressions), but is also keenly authoritative as Colonel Bevan – with a wandering eyebrow worthy of Roger Moore, rather aptly (one of Roberts’ other roles is that of the Ian Fleming). Completing the quintet is David Cumming, who manages to bring both pathos and slapstick to his portrayal of the brains behind the Operation Mincemeat, Charles Cholmondeley – plus if you need anyone to indignantly exclaim “MADAM!” for whatever reason, he is 100% the man for the job.
In terms of audience experience outside of the show itself, an exceptional job has been done to transform the Fortune Theatre into Operation Mincemeat World – from brand new merch to two delicious themed cocktails, it is the ultimate Mincefluencer dream. I would imagine the ticket pricing strategy will have to be rethought a tad, as selling upper circle tickets for £60-80 (with stalls & the dress circle the same price) doesn’t seem like a long-term viable option, though I do applaud the team for making a considerable effort to provide not just affordable seats, but affordable good seats wherever they can (it’s no mean feat in this day & age).
So there you have it; Operation Mincemeat is the whole package – no half-arsed efforts here, this new West End hit is most definitely whole-arsed. And if you didn’t understand that reference, get yourself to the Fortune Theatre immediately! You have your orders…
My verdict? Genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, with memorable songs and a pitch-perfect cast – this show was born to lead!
Operation Mincemeat runs at the Fortune Theatre until 19 August 2023 – tickets are available online and from the box office (or enter the lottery). The cast recording is available to pre-order via the official site (with streaming options also on offer).
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