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Operation Mincemeat

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Fortune Theatre, Covent Garden
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Operation Mincemeat, Fortune Theatre, 2023
Photo: Matt Crockett

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The glorious spoof musical about an eccentric real-life WWII finally operation makes it to the West End

SplitLip’s delightful spoof WW2 musical has been heading inexorably for the West End for something like five years now. It’s a fringe theatre comet that’s gathered mass and momentum via seasons at the New Diorama, Southwark Playhouse and Riverside Studios, and has now made impact in Theatreland – wiping out a West End dinosaur to boot, as it displaces ‘The Woman in Black’ after over 30 years at the Fortune Theatre.

And it’s really hard to be anything but delighted for the company, which consists of David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Robert. All bar Hagan perform in the show, with Claire Marie Hall and Jak Malone rounding out the cast. This is very much their triumph.

And though it’s been redirected for the West End by Robert Hastie, ‘Operation Mincemeat’ is at heart the same show it always was. There are no added backing dancers or bombastic reorchestrations. It’s slicker and bigger in its way, but still feels endearingly shambolic where it counts. It’s a very larky account of the World War 2 Operation Mincemeat, a ploy from British intelligence to feed the German army disinformation via a briefcase of false war plans strapped to a corpse that they hoped to pass off as a downed British pilot (yes, there was a recent film with exactly the same name, about exactly the same thing, and yes they do make a joke about this).

The story centres on Charles Cholmondeley (Cumming), the socially inept MI5 operative who dreams up the plan, and Ewen Montague (Hodgson), the brash, hyper-confident, public-school-educated narcissist who sells the scheme to their commanding officer. Really, though, all five performers transcend individual characters, and indeed their virtuosic multitasking is the show’s hallmark.  In the utterly audacious first-half climax the story cuts between Montague and Cholmondeley out on the razz, and the solemn, dignified submarine crew tasked with deploying the body… with the same actors playing both sets of characters. The substantially gender-swapped casting isn’t – I think! – trying to make any great point, but the fact it encourages the cast to ham away frantically – especially Hodgson, who must be shredding her larynx as the gravelly voiced Montague – sets the tone nicely.

The songs are funny, detailed and entertainingly eclectic – they lean towards the vaudevillian, though there’s a modern, ‘Hamilton’-ish punch to the rhymes. They’re laser-focussed on getting us to laugh: there’s little of the saccharine baggage of the average musical, no romance, no learning life lessons, no big introspective moments. But the company also pull an absolutely devastating ballad out of the bag in ‘Dear Bill’, as Malone – in the guise of matronly secretary Hesther Leggett – dictates a ‘fake’ personal letter to be planted on the corpse, one that’s clearly suffused with intense, unexpressed personal pain. It’s a wonderful moment: slightly weird, slightly queer, achingly tender – just one song, but enough to make the whole show feel more profound.

Really, it’s a delight from start to finish. Generally it avoids taking the war too seriously, and that’s fine, although there are some moments where the essential underlying frothiness feels like it's holding the show back a bit. Its mockery of the British class system and the dominance of Old Etonians is fun, but having raised it at the very beginning (‘Born to Lead’), the show obstinately refuses to actually go anywhere with it. Ditto a totally thrown-away song about the opportunities for women the war had created (‘All the Ladies’). And while the electro-RnB banger ‘Das Übermensch’ that opens act two is mostly very fun, I’d say having Nazis gleefully singing about ‘ridding Germany of vermin’ is extremely misjudged, no matter how ironically it’s intended. 

Still, these are really minor quibbles. It doesn’t have to be relentlessly profound: SplitLip is clearly aiming for Monty Python more than Stephen Sondheim. I’ll be intrigued to see how it holds up when the cast who created it moves on – their chemistry really is off the chart – but for now I think it’s safe to say that the operation has been a total success.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


Fortune Theatre
Russell Street
Tube: Covent Garden/Holborn
£19.50-£79.50. Runs 2hr 30min

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