'Operation Mincemeat' at Southwark Playhouse speaks to the current political moment
From its opening chorus, Operation Mincemeat is a fizzy, clever, compelling new musical. Though billed as a work-in-progress, don’t come in expecting a half-finished evening: this is a tight and carefully considered piece that deserves to be seen on a much larger stage soon.
Composition and writing team SplitLip (consisting of David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson, and Zoe Roberts, who also make up four of the five members of the acting company) have been publicly workshopping the show since 2019, including a pre-pandemic run at Southwark Playhouse, where it now returns. On a backdrop of rotary phones and rolling filing cabinets (design by Helen Coyston), the ensemble shuffles through the many players that came together to create the titular World War II operation, wherein a corpse was given false papers and shipwrecked in Spain in order to trick the Nazis.
Where, you might ask, could such an absurd plan come from? And how could it be allowed to put into operation? This might well be the question SplitLip asked themselves, and the answer and driving principle of the evening comes in the very first number: such ideas can only come from a world run by over-confident posh boys. Fronted by Ewan Montagu, brimming with swagger and unearned confidence in a fantastic performance by Hodgson, the lads of MI5 need to come up with a way to distract Hitler from an upcoming invasion attempt, stat. Montagu teams up with the impossibly awkward resident scientist Charles Cholmondeley (a twitchy and delightful Cumming), giving voice to the ideas Charlie’s too shy to share. Sailing on pure bravado, they’re let loose to pursue their madcap scheme with the help of secretaries Hester (Jak Malone) and Jean (Claire-Marie Hall).
Hodgson, Cumming, and Malone in particular are masters of physical comedy, and their rubber-limbed antics pair perfectly with the score’s heightened and satirical tone. Daubs of tragedy are deftly and sparingly applied, as in the moving solo number as Hester writes a supposedly fake love letter to a soldier doomed to die, and the play’s closing acknowledgement of the conspicuously unsung hero of the whole operation.
A well-intentioned effort to gesture towards the wartime contributions of women is the only notable rough patch, as the creators seem unsure exactly what to do with their requisite spunky screwball heroine. The show is at its freshest and most sparkling when it is most satirical, and SplitLip and Hall alike seem reticent to critique, much less mock, the plucky Jean the same way they do the other characters.
Operation Mincemeat speaks perfectly to the current political moment, but in subtle ways. Its mockery of the privileges of white masculinity, the insulating power of wealth, the recklessness of government guided by and for the few, also points at the frustrating and insidious truth of privilege: sometimes those rich jerks look like they’re having so much fun.
Photo credit: Operation Mincemeat (Photo by Matt Crockett)