Martini Rating: 🍸🍸🍸🍸🍸
You’d be mad to miss this in-demand and phenomenally executed, new British Musical. Bolstering a fantastic narrative, invigorating book and explosive score whilst packed, with humour, intelligence, precession, raw emotion and sentiment, this show quite simply has it all!
Based an a real British deception strategy employed during WWII by Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley, Operation Mincemeat tells the story of how they supposedly deceived Hitler, allowing the Allied forces to retake mainland Europe by entering through Sicily. The plan involved obtaining and planting a body off the coast of Spain, with correspondence in a briefcase chained to his wrist suggesting the Allies were planning to invade Sardinia. Knowing that the Spanish were neutral but working with the Germans, the ruse was fallen for and possibly played a part in convincing Hitler to move many of his troops from Sicily. Operation Mincemeat, (named after the operation itself), thus intelligibly and hilariously recounts how the pair proposed and then executed their plan, ‘Making a Man’ by creating the fictitious hero and Captain, ‘Bill’, which involved dressing a homeless man’s body with uniform, ID, receipts and momentos from his ‘fiancee’ to prove his legitimacy.
Presented by SpitLip the production is about to finish a sold out run at the Southwark Playhouse, having already completed a sell out stint at New Diorama last year. However, not to fear, due to popular demand they are returning to the Southwark Playhouse in May for a run in The Large this time and here’s why we think you should catch it…
As we’ve said before, Operation Mincemeat is based on actual events, so part of it’s striking nature, is the notion that it really is surprisingly accurate regarding the known facts of the strategy, (though it does employ some artistic license for the sake of pace, entertainment and gaps in what we actually know). Demonstrating how the initial idea was Cholmondeley’s, fleshed out and rehashed in collaboration with Montagu. The book cleverly drips in more detail such as describing the operation as like a Trojan Horse, not only because the plan was a deception like the Greek’s siege of Troy, but because Cholmondeley originally referred to the idea with the codename Trojan Horse. Whilst there are several (witty and depraving) references to Montagu’s naval career and a detailed staging of the transportation of the body, which was done on a submarine in a canister that prevented Oxygen from getting in. The piece also makes sure to include the key players such as the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Bentley Purchase – a coroner tasked with finding a suitable body, Ian Fleming the English author and naval intelligence officer who reported to John Godfrey Director of Naval Intelligence, the British vice-consul Haselden who was stationed in Spain and instructed to let the British know when the body washed ashore, as well as to watch over the autopsy and make it look like the British wanted the ‘important documents’ back, Colonel John Henry ‘Johnny’ Bevan who worked with MI5 and headed up many deception strategies and an American Pilot Willie Watkins who coincidentally crashed in Spain only three days before the body washed up there.
But, not only is Operation Mincemeat a thrilling deep-dive into history, it is also wonderfully self aware. Knowing that many, in fact all of their key characters are white, privileged males who attended schools such as Eton, SpitLip choose to make fun of this fact in their opening number, characterising several of these privileged and esteemed men as fools. They then cleverly proceed to offset this by writing in smart and feisty female characters to represent legitimate (and during this period), silenced female ambition, as well as highlighting how women began working to help win the war in both WWI and II, giving the work an exciting, protofeminist edge, whilst ensuring the piece is endlessly entertaining and comedically vibrant. Snappy sections, chocked full of raucous punchlines and fast moving wit, where for instance, mad-cap ideas are suggested by Ian Fleming, riotously alluding to his later penmanship of the James Bond spy novels, alongside Monatgu envisioning his efforts will land him heroic honours and a film career, a nod to the history he wrote in 1953, The Man Who Never Was, made into a film in 1956 and scenes showing him stealing confidential files from the office, pointing to the spy novel Operation Heartbreak released in 1950 with a plot suspiciously similar to Mincemeat, are contrasted by slower, more sincere and weighted moments. Such as when Bevan’s spinster secretary Hester, (Jak Malone) heartbreakingly sings of a painful lost love as she helps compose a fake love-letter to ‘Bill’, (Dear Bill), truly and beautifully capturing the harrowing reality of war, whilst a female operative is shown to be hungry with ambition and seeks the renown of her male colleagues, agreeing to a series of dates with Montagu and paying him undying attention in the hope this will help her standing.
Needless to say SpitLip’s execution is stellar, they expertly weave caricature and comedy with Brechtian stylised performativity, employing representative costuming and set pieces, adept multi rolling and unequivocal gender blind casting. The onstage changes of persona for instance, are not only masterfully done, but are usually performed quickly and in full view of the audience for comedic and allusion-breaking effect. Resulting in: a whirlwind of eclectically different songs, bold characters and moving set pieces, generating a fast-paced, formidable and engaging piece of musical theatre, that still manages to supply gentle moments of humanity and realism despite its form and comedic content. Moving onto the aforementioned score, it’s phenomenally eclectic nature can be attributed to SpitLip’s use of Leitmotif, a successful methodology used by many much-loved musicals, involving applying musical styles to different characters. For instance, Cholmondeley is designed to be an unlikely hero, nerdy yet likeable, SpitLip give him power ballads to sing to demonstrate his aptitude despite his unassured nature. Bevan dives into Hamilton-esque politicised rap numbers demonstrable of his status, whilst throughlines of feminism are delivered in a fiery Girl band-style pop routine. Fascism comes in the form of Electro-funk dancing Nazis, whilst jazz and disco combine as the men of the tale forget about the blitz to put on the ritz. Finally a sea shanty is delivered by the Lieutenant and officers aboard the submarine as they float ‘Bill’’s body off into the sea, representing Psalm 39 being supposedly read by Lt. Jewell at the time. The variegated nature of these compositions, as well as the undeniable brilliance of each, makes the music a true highlight, particularly due to the magnificence of the band; Felix Hagan, Ellen O’Reilly and Lewis Jenkins. The trio managing to dynamically accomplish a full and well-rounded sound, capturing with ease each of the chosen styles within the Leitmotif of the score.
Alongside them, the highly skilled cast of five are outstanding. David Cumming, Claire-Marie Hall, Natasha Hodgson, Jak Malone
and Zoe Roberts can only be described as bounding balls of energy as they flit on, off and around the stage conveying such a wide-range of complex and uniquely different characters. All five displaying tremendous vocal tenacity and comedic intelligence. As previously mentioned, Malone’s Hester is a highlight, his delivery of ‘Dear Bill’ is monumentally emotive and raw, undoubtedly bringing a tear to many. Whilst Hall has a particularly beautiful and powerful voice, as well as a likeable and warming performance style. Alongside them, Hodgson and Cumming are endlessly energetic and stylised actors. Whilst Roberts, is similarly dynamic and sharp, she is also a remarkably malleable performer.
Regarding the design, as previously mentioned Helen Coyston’s work is wonderfully representative and includes several moving set pieces, these are cabinet draws for holding operation files in, that are pushed together to form tables, chairs, the submarine, Coroner Purchase’s morgue, raised platforms for the actors to stand on etc. The draws also hold key props, making them easily accessible and cleverly brought into the action. Not only does this allow for the fast-pace of the piece, moving from setting to setting, across Europe and back, it also constitutes the secrecy of the operation and highlights the arrogant characterisation of Montagu as he tries and succeeds in taking files from the office for his own gains. Brightly coloured telephones brighten-up and litter the backdrop of the playing space, also hanging above the actor’s heads, this does a marvellous and unassuming job in referencing the complications of communication during wartime, from the codebreaking at Bletchley letting Montagu and Cholmondeley know the ruse had been fallen for, to their correspondence with Haselden at his post in Spain and the manipulations of the German spy network both at home and abroad.
All in all, Operation Mincemeat is a triumph and should take its place amongst other great historically perceptive and hyped-up musicals such Hamilton and SIX. Click here to book now for the Southwark Playhouse in May.
Writers/Composers – SpitLip
SpitLip are – David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson & Zoe Roberts
Choreography – Jenny Arnold
Set and Costume Design – Helen Coyston
Lighting Design – Sherry Coenen
Sound Design – Dan Balfour
Additional Casting – Pearson Casting
Publicity Artwork – Guy Sanders
Production Manager – Rich Irvine
Stage Manager – Roisin Symes
, Claire-Marie Hall,
Jak Malone and
, Ellen O’Reilly and