The week in theatre: Operation Mincemeat; 4000 Miles; The Circle – review

It’s a hoot – and a marvel. It is also one of the surprise survivors of the pandemic-stricken theatre. A show that looked like a caper with a cult following is on the brink of commercial success.

Hurrah! Operation Mincemeat has moved into the Fortune theatre, haunted for more than 30 years by The Woman in Black. Its rise, in an era of juggernaut musicals, is flabbergasting. The creation of the multitasking, multigifted young company SplitLip, it opened four years ago at the tiny, dynamic New Diorama theatre in London; it was by far the smallest, though not the least vibrant entry in my Top 10 shows of 2019. It had an apparently unlikely musical subject: the second world war decoy operation, involving a corpse and fake papers, set up by MI5 to persuade the German military the allies were about to go into Sardinia, not Sicily.

The talent was immediately apparent: nimbly varied, expressive music, ranging from sea shanty, to jazz to hip-hop; lyrics so patteringly exact and ingeniously rhymed that Noël Coward might have flushed with envy. Now directed by Robert Hastie, the production has been beefed up for the West End, with a flashier finale, but the turning-on-a-sixpence adroitness has not been lost. A five-strong cast never stop moving, across the stage and between characters: they are mostly English but sometimes German (Hitler hit off with a horizontal finger under the nose). They cross gender; they switch between toff and cockney. Ian Fleming bobs up among the intelligence staff, with his idea for a hero with a tag: “The name’s James.” Outsider genius is celebrated in the form of “a lolloping sidekick”, an aquatic expert whose response to obvious questions is: “Does a newt have a penis?”

Everyone should see Eileen Atkins. She makes acting look like being, not performing

This is a good moment to be sending up stuffed shirts, stiff uppers and British entitlement (after all, “foreigners aren’t great coroners”), but the real glory of SpitLip is that the company dare to honour as well as spoof. Mid-show comes a heartbreaker. The lights dim for Hester the self-effacing secretary, all pigeon bosom and pursed lips (and played by a chap), who delivers a love song to a long-ago, faraway soldier: the air quivers with understated intimacy.

Superbly performed musicals with unexpected subjects – Shockheaded Peter, Jerry Springer: the Opera – have supplied some of my most memorable moments in coming up to 25 years writing for the Observer. Eileen Atkins has supplied many others.

Everyone should see Atkins. She makes acting look like being, not performing. In 4000 Miles she is a 91-year-old woman whose hearing has faded and who is on the brink of losing all companionship along with her wits and her words. Atkins shows her moving in and out of an encroaching silence, effortlessly inflecting every moment.

Her hands are taking over from her tongue: they flutter in front of her face, both intricate and befuddled. She is used to being on her own, and appears like a ghost in the lives of others. As, in long cardy and slippers, she trundles her trolley out of the room, she goes on talking, as if to say there is a life offstage and in me, even when you can’t see it.

It is a subtle portrait, in a production by Richard Eyre that shows his particular gift for intimate, reflective theatre. Yet I think playwright Amy Herzog has mismanaged her material (actually the memories of her sharp political granny), pivoting the play around meetings between Atkins’s character and her troubled backpacking grandson. Sebastian Croft is vigorous in a part intended (before Covid scuppered production plans) for Timothée Chalamet, yet his storyline doesn’t grip. The real drama is in the debate in the head of the 91-year-old: between what she has been and now is, between what she can command and what is failing. It should have been a meditative monologue.

Tom Littler’s production of The Circle sheds new light on Somerset Maugham. The plush and curdled society is in evidence: panama hats, satin bias-cut dresses, tennis whites, secrecy and dissatisfied spouses. Yet I’ve never before heard in his springy dialogue such echoes of his contemporaries Oscar Wilde and Coward. The 1921 play, featuring characters tugged between unfortunate marriages and helter-skelter romance, is illuminated by the observation that people are so unused to hearing the truth that when presented with it, they mistake it for a joke.

It is easy to assume some encoding of Maugham’s own life as a man who, recognising too late that he was “three-quarters queer”, entered into a wretched marriage with the interior designer Syrie Wellcome. One unwanted husband in The Circle is a furniture fanatic: he strokes a new chair as if it were a dog – or a dame – and explains it is Sheraton. “I know,” breathes his mother: “The School for Scandal.” Maugham gives shrewd Shavian nods at those trapped by luxury and lack of education. A bright but rigid Jane Asher lets forth volleys of vacant amazement: religion is “too wonderful” – though life is merely “very quaint”.

Sincerity in society is “an iron girder in a house of cards”. The same is true of a Maugham play. Littler’s production is deft; Nicholas Le Prevost and Clive Francis both have a lovely ease as two old codgers grappling with false teeth and expectations. Yet The Circle needs less boiling, more simmering. Then it would be not only a revelation about Maugham’s work but about all shadowed lives.

Star ratings (out of five)
Operation Mincemeat
4000 Miles ★★★
The Circle ★★★