A proper fringe theatre success story, ‘Operation Mincemeat’ has played numerous London theatres over the last several years and in March 2023 will finally make it to the West End, dethroning ‘The Woman in Black’ at the Fortune Theatre after a 33-year-run. It’s only initially scheduled to run for eight weeks, though one assumes they’re after more – certainly the chunky preview period suggests they're serious about a longer run.
This review is from May 2019. 'Operation Mincemeat' just keeps coming back, with its biggest run to date scheduled for Riverside Studios in 2022.
Fringe theatre favourites Kill the Beast have joined forces with ‘glam-punk composer’ Felix Hagan to form a new musical theatre company (SpitLip) and to stage a two-and-a-half-hour musical. Which isn’t very fringey but is very good fun.
While previous shows have largely pastiched horror films, the subject of spoofery this time is WWII movies, and all manner of musical genres. Initially, you wonder if the cast of five can sustain their scrappy sketch comedy approach over a feature-length piece. But ‘Operation Mincemeat’ – while being about bungling officers with a madcap plan to thwart Hitler – is itself slicker than it wants to appear, and clearly well-drilled.
The show also has a very sturdy backbone: Operation Mincemeat really happened. The British Army really did handcuff a briefcase of misleading ‘top secret’ papers to a corpse and send him off to be washed up on the coast of Spain. The documents were convincing enough for Hitler to send enormous numbers of soldiers to Sardinia and Greece, allowing the Allies to swoop in and take Sicily.
Told with great brio, ‘Operation Mincemeat’ is less a ripping yarn than one entirely torn to shreds. It takes mocking aim at the self-aggrandising, entitled and often cavalier attitude of naval intelligence officer Ewen Montagu (played with appropriately bumptious swagger by Natasha Hodgson) as well as the rest of the ‘born to lead’ elite ruling class. There’s also a fair amount of eye-rolling piss-taking at the way women are treated as accessories. But it’s a pretty gentle skewering, the old chaps coming out on top after all.
Devised by the company, line by line the show has a terrific hit rate; it doesn’t exactly build to anything profound, but its whip-crack rhymes are fast and funny while the script is well-seasoned with smart, silly asides. Performances are splendidly buffoonish, and if one or two could step it down a notch, the relentless energy certainly helps keep things barrelling along. That said, they absolutely could, and should, knock at least three songs off it.
Nevertheless, Hagan’s music is bags of fun, especially when it moves beyond generalised musical theatre pastiche into something more specific: if you ever wanted to know what David Guetta feat The Third Reich might sound like, you’re in the right place. Military movements are described with ‘Hamilton’-spoofing rapid-fire hip hop. A ballad about how to write a love letter to a faraway soldier sneaks up on you to become quite outrageously moving.
Kudos to Jak Malone for managing that tonal shift while playing both Hester, the seemingly prim office manager, and a gleefully macabre coroner. But this really is an ensemble show, and SpitLip prove a winning one. Their style may not be for everyone, but you’d have to have a very stiff upper lip indeed for it not to break into laughter.