Operation Mincemeat at Fortune Theatre review: this gung-ho musical could be just what the West End needs
On paper, SpitLip Theatre’s delicious knockabout musical about a plot to fox Hitler shouldn’t work. Neither should the operation it was based on. But MI5’s crackpot misdirection scheme, in which fake invasion papers were planted on a washed-up corpse, helped change the course of the Second World War.
Now an exuberant, energetic, incurably daft show about it is in the West End, after a five-year journey through fringe and regional theatres that has become part of the story. Last night, three of its four co-creators were in the cast of five: the other two had been in it from the start, or nearly.
Mincemeat the musical has wit, charm, a subversive attitude to gender, a surprising amount of pathos, and a Eurobeat number for a Nazi boyband (yes, really). It’s also packed with deliberate anachronisms, outrageous overacting and sheepishly knowing in-jokes. It’s an embodiment of the eccentric British exceptionalism it both celebrates and mocks
The prevailing tone of arch jokiness is set in the opening number, Born to Lead, in which swaggering, privileged intelligence officers address the war as an extension of their schooldays. One of them is the pre-Bond Ian Fleming (Zoë Roberts): another is Ewen Montague, played by Natasha Hodgson in a marvelously bluff, gruff, freewheeling parody of cocksure masculinity.
Their plans to “just kill Hitler” are shot down by commanding officer Johnny Bevan (Roberts again: frantic doubling of roles is a signature). So Montague – typically – commandeers the mad Mincemeat strategy of gawky-but-brilliant Charles Cholmondeley. In this role David Cumming, sporting a non-period Mohican topknot, ramps the show’s overblown acting style up to a level of hysteria that’s undeniably funny but sometimes grating.
He, Hodgson and Roberts wrote the book, music and lyrics with Felix Hagan, however, and their achievement can’t be understated. The script is nimble; the songs riff through period genres from Noel Coward numbers to stirring sea shanties; the rhymes are inspired. The creators highlight the unsung contribution of backroom heroines Jean Leslie and Hester Leggett to the Mincemeat plot. In a production where hardly anyone is cast according to their gender pronouns, Jak Malone is very moving as Hester.
Robert Hastie’s new production feels slightly upgraded, design-wise, from the version I saw at Southwark Playhouse in 2022. But it retains the show’s gawky, undergraduate zest and scratchiness. A microphone malfunction last night just added to the spirit of gung-ho fun. Glyndwr Michael, the homeless man whose dead body was co-opted to carry the Mincemeat plans, is honoured at the end. Quite right too. This show could be just what the West End needs.
Fortune Theatre, to 19 Aug; operationmincemeat.com