Review by Daz Gale
Every now and then a new show comes along that seems to take on a life of its own. Initially starting out as a secret, Operation Mincemeat has slowly built up a loyal fanbase as they constantly tweak the show and play to bigger audiences each time. Now, it’s finally in the West End for a season at the Fortune Theatre that has already been extended once. I guess it’s fair to say the secret is well and truly out now. But will the bigger stage and production value mean this is the best version of the show yet? I can answer that with another question - Does a newt have a penis?
Based on a remarkably true story about the bizarre operation involving a corpse that played a crucial part in World War II, Operation Mincemeat is the first musical from SplitLip whose goal was to make “big, dumb musicals”. First being seen at New Diorama Theatre (who also saw another of their shows enjoy a well-received West End transfer this year), it then played three runs at Southwark Playhouse before heading to Riverside Studios last summer. Each run was different than the last as the show was constantly being tweaked, rewritten and developed until they had settled on what they considered to be the definitive and perfect version of the show. After 6 weeks of previews, it was time for the big reveal…
It’s fair to say Operation Mincemeat has a tough act to follow, taking over from a show that ran at the same space for 34 years. While there might not be anything quite as scary as The Woman In Black here (though the beginning of act 2 comes close), it keeps the high quality theatre the Fortune has become a reliable source for over the last four decades. Written by SplitLip, otherwise known as David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts (three of whom star in the show), it is a whizz-bang often bonkers stop, taking in influences from other shows while still feeling distinctly original and unique in its approach.
For a show that has been written and rewritten multiple times over the last 5 years, you would expect it to either be world class in its writing or a disjointed mess. Fortunately, in this case it is definitely the former. Consistently witty with an unrivalled knack for how to land a joke, this is comic theatre at its finest. Descending into farcical nature at times with moments of slapstick, the intelligence of the comedy is amplified due to a sudden and drastic shift of tone towards the climax of act one in the form of ‘Dear Bill’ (more on that later). In other hands, this contrasting and surprising change may prove jarring and at odds with the rest of the show. The way it suddenly and seamlessly transitions in a beautifully poignant and heart wrenching moment is a true testament to the genius writing of the show.
Throughout its various incarnations, we have been treated to differing sets whose charm was in their simplicity. Whether it was a prop going wrong or a cast member being unable to hide, it was all part of the package. However, no expense has been spared for the West End run with high quality production value that impresses from the moment the yellow curtain is raised. Gorgeous set design from Ben Stones ups the stakes substantially with lots of tricks and hidden reveals allowing for a lot of fun to be had, utilised to perfection thanks to Robert Hasties expert direction. The lighting design from Mark Henderson is consistently stunning and versatile in its approach and regularly makes the stage burst with colour… or darkness at times.
Operation Mincemeat has always loved its glitzy finale – but usually this was nothing more than a sparkly outfit. They have outdone themselves this time with a grand finale that bullds and builds throwing everything at it (I was surprised there was no kitchen sink at one point). To say the smile that filled my face after the first reveal only grew and grew until the finale finally ended would be an understatement. By the end, my smile was so huge I was worried it would be locked in that position for life. No spoilers here but think big props, big reveal and a lot of big fun – with Jenny Arnolds winning choreography building up to a satisfying climax.
With the same cast performing the show since the beginning, they know this material like the back of their hand (even if it has changed 1000 times over the years). You know you are in safe hands with them and it shows with their expertise allowing the small cast of five to become dozens of characters, often changing at a moments notice. Claire-Marie Hall gives a sweet turn as Jean Leslie with Zoë Roberts a delight in her multiple roles as Johnny Bevan and others.
Jak Malone shows fantastic versatility in his beautifully understated turn as Hester Leggett as well as a hilariously over the top turn as Spillsbury with David Cumming giving a masterclass performance in comedic timing with the fantastically realised Charles Cholmondeley, taking what could easily be a caricature and fleshing it out to create a loveable and hilarious character. The cast are completed by Natasha Hodgson who gives a standout performance as Ewen Montagu with perfect use of mannerisms, facial expressions and a gruff masculine voice. Emulating such a character can’t be the easiest at the best of the times, let alone when facing problems with a broken microphone as she did on press night. The way she handled the less than ideal situation with ease, never missing a beat and adapting her performance as such showed what a truly gifted performer she is and made an already iconic performance all the more impressive.
Another winning element of the show is its instantly memorable music. 'God that's brilliant' sums up the strong quality numbers with highlights including earworm 'Spilsbury', the haunting shanty 'Sail on, boys' and the fabulous 'All the ladies'. The undoubted highlight though is the sudden shift change that is 'Dear Bill' with its heartbreaking lyrics flawlessly performed by Jak Malone providing one of the all time great moments in musical theatre and once again demonstrating why SplitLip are experts in their craft.
Throughout the years and various iterations, SplitLip have meticulously crafted the best possible version of the show. It’s safe to say they have found its definitive form now with every element coming together seamlessly to make one spectacular production. Proof that a little time, love and patience can make any show better (as opposed to digging your heels in at the first preview and refusing to change a single thing… mentioning no names), some shows were born to follow and some were born to lead – in that respect, Operation Mincemeat is the leader of the pack. The aim may have been to make a dumb musical but there is nothing dumb about this cleverly written and flawlessly executed production. Don't be surprised if The Fortune Theatre have another long running show on their hands. God, it’s brilliant!
Operation Mincemeat plays at the Fortune Theatre until 19th August. Tickets available here.
Photos by Matt Crockett