'Operation Mincemeat' review – this gem of a musical is a rip-roaring British success story

Read our five-star review of the West End transfer of SpitLip's Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre, with performances currently through 19 August.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

“You really couldn’t write it, could you?” So quips Ewen Montagu, one of the real-life heroes of the, well, frankly unbelievable Second World War intelligence ruse which aided the Allies’ invasion of Sicily. It’s also an irresistible premise for a musical – and, like the tale that inspired it, Operation Mincemeat is a cheering homegrown success story, going from the tiny New Diorama Theatre in 2019, through runs at Southwark Playhouse and Riverside Studios, all the way to the West End.

It’s a marvellous fit for the Fortune Theatre, which housed The Woman in Black for decades, but will now surely see a lengthy run for this ingenious, witty, and surprisingly moving show. Devised by troupe SpitLip, and effectively tightened by incoming director Robert Hastie, it’s a pithy telling of a complex tale. The humourless Colin Firth-led movie wasn’t nearly as nimble — nor did it feature brilliant cross-casting, astonishing quick-changes, or a bedazzled vampire of a coroner.

But, oddly enough, all of that feels entirely in keeping with the spirit of Operation Mincemeat. Dreamed up by Ian “James Bond” Fleming (although the show rearranges a few facts to suit their version), it involved disguising a corpse as a fictional British captain who had crash-landed in Spain. On his person were faked secret documents, designed to fool German spies into thinking that the Allies were actually planning to invade Sardinia, not Sicily.

That plan required great creative thinking, immense courage, a dash of eccentricity, and a huge leap of faith. So too does this boundlessly inventive show constantly set its ambitions seemingly beyond its resources (including a cast of five summoning numerous characters) — and somehow not just meet but exceed them. It gives you a similar rush to the discovery of the small-but-mighty Six, with which it shares some DNA.

Natasha Hodgson takes charge of proceedings as a splendidly swaggering, Eton-educated, utterly self-assured Montagu, who believes he was born to lead. (As, on this evidence, was Hodgson.) It’s a brilliantly pitched performance: part sharp satire of posh male entitlement, part intrepid charmer who holds firm when others panic, enlivened with physical comedy that works all the better for the cross-casting.

Hodgson doesn’t shy away from her character’s darker side either: Montagu can be condescending towards female colleagues, and treats the dead man as completely disposable because he was a penniless tramp. But she conveys, too, Montagu’s need to compartmentalise and to grab “the small flashes of joy” in dark times. He wasn’t perfect; he was human.

David Cumming mines both humour and poignancy from the geeky scientist Charles Cholmondeley, who lacks Montagu’s blithe public-school confidence, yet gradually blossoms thanks to their odd-couple friendship. Claire-Marie Hall strikes a girl-power note as new recruit Rose Leslie, eager to do more than make tea; her big number borrows Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” dance.

Zoë Roberts moves seamlessly between a gruff Colonel Johnny Bevan, a callow Ian Fleming, and a perspiring overseas asset. But it’s Jak Malone who almost walks off with the show — both with a dynamite comic turn, as creepy coroner Spilsbury, and as the fastidious MI5 matron Hester Leggett. The latter reveals her own wartime heartbreak while composing a fake love letter from their captain’s fiancée in the exquisitely tender song “Dear Bill”.

But then that’s the remarkable magic trick that this show pulls off. Just when you think it can’t get any zanier, it swerves into heartfelt sincerity — and somehow honours these quiet heroes, whose pivotal deeds were kept secret, as well as (in a beautiful climactic moment) the man who gave his life for his country: the borrowed corpse, Glyndwr Michael.

All of that is cleverly couched within rip-roaring entertainment. There are glimmers of Monty Python, Mel Brooks, Gilbert and Sullivan, Noël Coward, and our proud music hall tradition. The wide-ranging score features patter songs, edging into Hamilton rap territory, as well as jazzy 1940s-style harmonies, a blast of electro for the Nazis, a wistful sea shanty, and a big glitzy Hollywood finale (fabulous choreography throughout from Jenny Arnold).

Ben Stones’s set, with its graph-paper back wall, wheeled blackboard/portable door, and all-important rotary phones, cleverly facilitates the show’s lightning-fast pace. The slapstick here is first-rate: I particularly love one set-piece involving a dizzying tangle of hats and phone cords. Mark Henderson supplies strip lighting for the gang’s basement office, and helps us switch locations — as in a bravura sequence alternating between a delirious night out on the town and a submarine’s stealthy mission.

There are even topical gags about the incompetent Government and the coronation. But the way it captures our peculiarly British love of silly (but much-needed) irreverence feels timeless — as does the show’s message that it matters who, or what, we fight for. The inspiring Operation Mincemeat will surely make us all want to fight to nurture more original musicals like this one.

Operation Mincemeat is at the Fortune Theatre through 19 August.

Photo credit: Operation Mincemeat (Photo by Matt Crockett)

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