sat 13/07/2024

Operation Mincemeat, Fortune Theatre review - high-octane musical comedy hits the big time | reviews, news & interviews

Operation Mincemeat, Fortune Theatre review - high-octane musical comedy hits the big time

Operation Mincemeat, Fortune Theatre review - high-octane musical comedy hits the big time

Five actors plus loads of silly hats and accents add up to a hilarious evening

Wired: Claire-Marie Hall, Natasha Hodgson, David Cumming, Zoe Roberts and Jak MaloneAvalon

It’s back yet again, Operation Mincemeat, a gift of a story that goes on giving. It surfaced as the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was, based on a 1953 book by Ewen Montagu, one of the MI5 types who came up with the 1943 plan of that name.

Its latest run was kicked off by a 2010 book by Ben Macintyre, a play by Cardboard Citizens, a second film version, with Matthew Macfadyen and Colin Firth, in 2021 and a long-aborning musical by the SpitLip company. 

Somehow audiences never tire of hearing how MI5 turned a corpse into a vital red herring, complete with a briefcase of faked secret documents and a love letter in his jacket, that aimed to fool Hitler into moving his troops from Sicily (which the Allies hoped to invade) to Sardinia (which they didn’t).

SpltLip have been developing their staging for six years now, in the unlikely form of a  “big dumb musical”, as their mission statement has it. The score was created by three of the performers, David Cumming, Zoe Roberts and Natasha Hodgson (main picture), plus composer Felix Hagan, and samples recent pop hits (Beyonce’s back catalogue is a favourite, her moves too), while in some numbers bouncing along with a Hamilton vibe. 

left to right is Zoe Roberts, Jak Malone, Natasha Hodgson and Claire-Marie Hall. Credit Matt CrockettVerbally it’s as much of a workout as a Gilbert and Sullivan score, with snappy patter-song lyrics and juicy internal rhymes (this chap/mishap, fraud/ignored), But impressively its score can also plum poignant depths, as in the Noel Coward-ish “Dear Bill”, sung, beautifully, by Jak Malone as Hester Leggett. Malone, with no other costuming than a pair of spectacles on a chain, his lips pursed and hands demurely folded over his abdomen, becomes Hester before your eyes, the MI5 men’s stalwart office administrator. Hester’s beloved was a First World War casualty; now she channels her younger self into a letter for “Bill” from his fiancee “Pam” that he will carry to his watery grave, a perfectly judged blend of the everyday and the heartfelt. 

Malone shunts between Hester and numerous other OTT characters, including Bernard Spilsbury, spangle-coated purveyor of corpses, and Willie Watkins, an exuberant though dead American flyer, at the drop of a changed hat. All five members of the cast – and you start out by counting them to be sure there really are only five – perform these lightning switcheroos countless times over the two hours, sometimes in the same sentence, and typically by swapping just one item of clothing. It’s a glorious parade of witty stagecraft that can turn a row of strutting, sequin-coated Nazis into the beanie-hatted crew of the ship dumping “Bill Martin”’s body, and back again, in seconds. And what the five of them can do with three straw hats or five phone cords is a triumph of ingenuity. (Take a bow, director Robert Hastie.)

The pathos of “Dear Bill” and the regular stern lectures from MI5 boss Johnny Bevan (Zoe Roberts, pictured above, left) about the urgency of Britain’s need for a plan aside, the keynotes in the script are lashings of knowing humour and very silly stuff, even a Coronation gag. Especially treasurable are the Bond film parodies (Ian Fleming was in the MI5 team that concocted Mincemeat and makes a number of spotlight-hogging appearances here, played by Roberts, in loving parodies of the 007 films’ opening credits,). 

The crazy, mainly true details of the plot are joined by more contemporary targets. The establishment gets a good drubbing, opening the show with a song that reprises throughout, “Born to Lead”. It's a hymn to MI5’s Old Etonian contingent, though the spadework of the exercise is done by the ladies in Hester’s care, especially Jean (Claire-Marie Hall), who is the conscience of the operation, fretting that the corpse’s unknown relatives have not been informed of his fate while relishing being “useful” for once. 

The main brains behind the plot actually belong to Charles Cholmondeley (Cumming), aka the “bug man”, in reality an RAF officer from South Australia but here a grounded myopic boffin whose dialogue is peppered with daft references to newts. Cumming has huge fun turning him into a jittery, freakish wreck in studious glasses, outsmarted at every turn by smooth operator Montagu (a gravel-voiced gender-flipping Hodgson, who can make her voice descend down to a basso profondo too). 

What am I saying: all the cast have huge fun, without ever dropping the ball. It’s almost exhausting to keep up with them. Go and see the show at the intimate Fortune before it inevitably moves on to bigger spaces. It’s guaranteed to give your ability to grin and giggle a strenuous, much needed workout. 

The cast perform lightning switches of character countless times during the show, sometimes in the same sentence


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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