REVIEW: Operation Mincemeat, SpitLip (Southwark Playhouse)

“God, that’s brilliant” are the words that you want to be exclaiming at the end of every show you see. And presumably exactly what the cast and creatives want to hear coming out of the mouths of their audiences (and the pens of their critics) too. So how exactly do you make a musical that results in those words being on everybody’s lips? One option is to bash them across the head with them at every opportunity, in a not so subtle attempt at subliminal messaging. The more people that emerge from the auditorium singing “God, that’s brilliant” to themselves, the better chance you have of spreading this particular message*. It’s a dangerous tactic, which could easily backfire if the audience is not receptive to the message**. But that doesn’t matter if the show is, in fact, brilliant. Thankfully, Operation Mincemeat is.

After missing Operation Mincemeat at the New Diorama last year, Mummy made sure to snap up tickets when it announced a week long run at the Southwark Playhouse. As is now customary, Mummy and Mrs Mummy went on separate evenings, taking it in turns to be in charge of the munchkins. The slight flaw in this otherwise ingenious plan was exposed for the first time at Operation Mincemeat, when technical difficulties resulted in the Act 2 opener being cancelled at the performance Mrs Mummy saw. Although she still came out declaring the show to be brilliant, she felt a teeny bit shortchanged when Mummy returned the following evening raving about hip-hopping Nazis***. At which point, Mummy feels that it is probably a good time to tell you about the unbelievably true story which forms the plot of this brilliantly bonkers new British musical.

Operation Mincemeat is the name given to a WWII plot to divert Hitler’s troops away from Sicily. Masterminded by Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, it involved disguising a dead body as a British soldier and sending it via submarine into ‘neutral’ Spanish waters, expecting the Spanish to share documents detailing fictional Allied plans with German spies. If the Germans took the bait, it was anticipated that Hitler would redirect his troops to Greece and Sardinia, paving the way for an Allied invasion of Sicily. A daring, complex and almost implausibly brilliant plan that just may have worked.

This unlikely war story is brought to life on stage in a refreshingly modern musical which lovingly plays with the form. With a story set in a male-dominated military environment, you might expect gender-imbalance in the company, particularly with a cast of just five having to play all the roles. So in a subversive stroke of brilliance, Operation Mincemeat boasts a 60% female cast. This adds an extra dimension to the opening number which takes aim at the old boys network. The most privileged and self-confident of the male characters are played by women, while Charles (awkward, self-doubting and very much not part of the public school elite) is played by a man (David Cumming). Meanwhile, one of the two female leads is also played by a man. God, that’s brilliant.

It’s very much an ensemble piece, with all five playing crucial parts in addition to a range of supporting characters. It’s hard to pick out individuals, although Jak Malone is particularly impressive, switching effortlessly between characters including a zany coroner and dutiful secretary Hester, whose song about losing her beloved in WWI is a proper tear-jerker. Natasha Hodgson is also superb as maverick Montagu, perfectly playing the privileged agent who lets others do the hard graft while he wines and dines colleague Jean (Claire-Marie Hall) under the guise of collecting receipts to make their corpse hero, Bill, more believable.

The watertight book, which is better than anything to grace the pages of an Ian Fleming novel, is filled with intrigue, wit and unexpected facts about newts. There are even cameos from Fleming himself (Zoe Roberts), who was working for the British intelligence services at the time of Mincemeat. The songs are just as entertaining, spanning a range of musical styles, each executed with military precision. Continuing the subversive twists on musical theatre classics, the traditional “I want” song is sung by Charles and the equally obligatory “song that goes like this” is sung by two characters who are neither in love nor have experience of it. The lyrics are sharp, not just in the many comedic numbers, but also in the more heartfelt songs including Hester’s lament to her lost lover and the sea shanty sung by the submariners who transmit the precious corpse cargo to Spanish seas. More than just a laugh a minute, Operation Mincemeat has depth.

The set and costumes are simple, allowing for plenty of quick character and scene changes that see the story move between a wide range of locations, aided by choreography that makes full use of the small space. The lighting is also highly effective, particularly in the more frenetic numbers straddling the interval. All the changes in character, location and musical style help what is a relatively long fringe musical absolutely fly by, with the pace only really sagging a little bit in what feels like a slightly contrived argument between Charles and Jean towards the end of Act 2. As the musical is being re-worked for another run in May (this time in the larger space at Southwark Playhouse), Mummy would suggest that this is the one scene that might be worth cutting. And since she’s aware that SpitLip have asked for what else audiences want from the new and (even more) improved version, Mummy would also just make the following observation: Almost all the best musicals contain Nazis and/or a tap number. One out of two ain’t bad, but is it brilliant?…..

Actually yes, it is brilliant. It’s mostly mad, insanely entertaining but with elements of real emotion. An absolute must-see new musical which deserves to go down in history.

* Exhibit A – Mummy is still not convinced that Mary Poppins on stage was practically perfect (although that’s a whole other blog post), but is finding it quite hard to argue with that particular earworm.

** Exhibit B – The cast of Made in Dagenham desperately singing “Stand Up” at a comfortably seated audience springs to mind.

***Mummy was not entirely sure whether to describe this as “hip-hop” or “some sort of dance music that may be house” or something else entirely. She has subsequently seen it described as “Dubstep” which is a genre of music she doesn’t in any way claim to understand, but this sounds no less believable than anything else written here.

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles, Mittens and Brown Paper Packages (aka all 5 of my favourite things).

Operation Mincemeat played at Southwark Playhouse from 4 to 11 January 2020. It returns from 14 to 23 May 2020.