In April 1943, after months of planning, British intelligence officers used a stolen corpse to enact a daring scheme. They dressed the dead man as an airman, stuffed his pockets with receipts and love letters to give him a plausible identity, handcuffed him to a suitcase full of false intelligence, and left him floating in the sea off the coast of Spain. The plan – codenamed ‘Operation Mincemeat’ – worked like a charm. Hitler believed the trick, and he expected the Allies to invade Sardinia. The real invasion, of Sicily, was a triumph.
Several years later, a former cabinet minister published a spy novel with a suspiciously similar plot. In response, the British security services decided to publish the story of Operation Mincemeat. Ewen Montagu, one of the officers who led the operation, wrote the best-selling book The Man Who Never Was over the course of a weekend. There’s now a star-studded 2022 film and, as the version of Montagu on stage tells us plaintively, “a much less profitable musical.”
Operation Mincemeat takes a little while to get used to. It’s immature, it’s boorish, it’s a little bit slapstick. It features more contorted facial expressions and crazy eyes than a medieval peasant would have seen in a lifetime. And yet, once you relax, and let it in – it is a joy.
With a cast of only five, doubling- and tripling- and quadrupling-up where necessary, the actors barely pause for breath. The breakout star is the versatile Jak Malone, playing both the matronly Hester and the camp and glitzy coroner who helps them find a body, Sir Bernard Spilsbury.
The blossoming friendship between the charming but careless Ewen Montagu (Natasha Hodgson) and absurdly insecure Charles Cholmondeley (Sean Carey) is heartwarming. In one of their first conversations, Charles asks Montagu what happened in a meeting, and Montagu replies “I don’t know, something about attention to detail? I wasn’t listening.” This variety of snappy quip – dependable and vintage – is in plentiful supply.
But the music in this show is anything but predictable. They bound through different genres with ease – old-fashioned musical numbers, girlpop bangers, and more. Visits to London are signified by cockney accents and flat caps. A dressing-down from the Colonel is Hamiltonesque – pacey, angry, and full of internal rhymes. After an unexpected R&B song performed by Nazis with boy-band moves and glittering red swastika armbands, one of the cast comes out to berate the audience for applauding: “Really? Whose side are you on?” And just when I thought I knew what to expect, a surprisingly moving ballad in the second half had me bawling my eyes out. I’ll definitely be refreshing Spotify, hoping for a soundtrack album to appear.
Operation Mincemeat is not a sophisticated piece of theatre by any stretch of the imagination. Some people will find the humour isn’t quite for them. But it’s joyful, it’s heartwarming, it’s many-splendoured. The vintage quips and slapstick humour are on a plot with solid bones: high stakes, believable friendships, and some cracking songs.
Book, Music and Lyrics by: SpitLip (David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson & Zoe Roberts)
Choreography by: Jenny Arnold
Musical direction by: Joe Bunker
Set and costume design by: Helen Coyston
Lighting design by: Sherry Coenen
Sound design by: Mike Walker
Operation Mincemeat plays at Riverside Studios until 22 July. Further information and bookings can be found here.