Writers and Composers: David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
The West End may be awash with American musicals at the moment, but if Operation Mincemeat is anything to go by, the best place to see new British musicals is the fringe. This clever, whacky and quintessentially British show about a Second World War plan to confuse Nazi Intelligence is destined to go far.
In 1943, British Intelligence sent a corpse brandishing a suitcase of secret documents to the Spanish seaside in the hope that the officials there would send this misinformation to Berlin. Believing that the Allies were about to invade Sardinia, Hitler would order his troops to leave Sicily. The Allies would then invade a vulnerable Sicily. This plan was named Operation Mincemeat by its architects Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, and with all the things that could go wrong with the operation, it seems incredible that it was ever put into action.
Theatre company SpitLip’s adaptation of the military operation is not the first. In 1956 a film, The Man Who Never Was, based on Montagu’s book, was released, a fact that SpitLip ensure is not forgotten in their comic and slightly irreverent version of this important mission. All parts are played by the small cast of five, and yet despite the number of roles the actors have to play, the storytelling here is faultless, and their attention to the minutiae of the plan is impressive.
David Cumming plays Cholmondeley as a nervous nerd, overlooked and overtaken by his colleagues. In his journey from underdog to hero, Cumming is always in good voice and gives Cholmondeley an easy if awkward charm. He becomes one of those anti-heroes the British so love to root for. Natasha Hodgson plays Montagu, a hilarious gender-blind casting, and there are many laughs to be had in her take on privileged masculinity. She also has the best song too, Making a Hero(with no list of songs, all titles are approximate) which really should have been the last song of the first half.
Instead, the final song of the first part is Let Me Die In Velvet and is sung very well by Rory Furey-King, who plays, among others, Jean, a female aide in British Intelligence. Jean is spirited and announces early on that she is not there to make tea, and in an ingenious decision Furey-King gives Jean an American accent, thus making her very modern determination more believable. In more successful gender-blind casting Hester, a secretary in the department is played by Jak Malone, and there is something of classic British actor Alastair Sim in his portrayal of a woman trapped by her class and gender. It’s a very funny turn, but when Malone sings Love Letter, the laughs quickly turn into tears. This very moving song stands alone, and could easily fit into a chanteuse’s repertoire.
The cast is completed by Zoe Roberts who plays a variety of roles from Colonel Bevan to Ian Fleming, but her most comic role is that of Haselden, a British official in Spain, tasked to ensure that the coroner takes the bait. Conveying the heat of Spain, just with a straw hat and a handkerchief, Roberts delivers her jokes with devastating timing. The commitment and the energy of all five cast members is shockingly good, and they never miss a beat. And Das Übermensch, the song that starts the second half, is jaw-droppingly bold.
In fact, all of Operation Mincemeat’s songs are ready to go: ranging from jazzy numbers to full-blown R&B anthems, these numbers fit the narrative perfectly, and the lyrics are worthy of Sondheim. The band of three, led by SpitLip’s Felix Hagan is superb too, and even in the small black box of the New Diorama, it never drowns out the vocals. Helen Coyston’s spacious set gives the cast plenty of room, with hanging telephones effectively capturing the atmosphere of espionage.
For sure, Operation Mincemeat is too long, and a couple of the solo songs could easily be cut from the second half, but, without a doubt, SpltLip’s show is the best new musical of the year so far. It looks set – and some last lines write themselves – to make mincemeat out of its competitors.
Runs until 15 June 2019 | Image: Alex Harvey-Brown