This was my first ever visit to the Fortune Theatre, because for the last 33 years it has been the home to The Woman In Black. Now it’s hosting Operation Mincemeat and while it may not match the previous occupant’s three decades, this accomplished, fast-moving musical comedy certainly deserves a long run.
From the moment the yellow curtain goes up on Operation Mincemeat, you know you’re in for a treat. It begins with a chorus number by the five cast members, who start as they mean to go on. They fill the stage with their larger than life characters, exuberant performances and the sheer enjoyment of being there.
Over a couple of hours, we are told the true, albeit embellished, story from World War Two of an MI5 plan to use a dead body with fake papers to fool the German army into thinking the British will invade Sardinia rather than Sicily. However, this is not really a tribute to MI5, more a satire on male chauvinism in general and the Old Boy network in particular.
Operation Mincemeat is written and composed by David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Roberts, developed from an idea that became a run at the tiny New Diorama theatre in London and then polished into a West End show. Currently, all of the creators, less composer Felix Hagan, are in the cast and are joined by Claire Marie Hall and Jak Malone who have fantastic singing voices. The others sing well too. I’m pretty sure the four understudies who are given equal billing in the programme are also multi-talented.
The cast play many parts of both male and female gender, and this adds an additional layer of humour, as when Natasha Hodgson, playing the group’s leader Ewen Montagu, struts with old Etonian entitlement and masculine pomposity. His response to the question ‘Is it legal?’ is ‘Does it matter?’ And he tells us in song:
For we were made to give the orders / While lesser men take heed / For some were born to follow / But we were born to lead.
Outstanding is Jak Malone as the secretary Hester, who sings the most moving song of the evening, Dear Bill, a fictitious letter to a soldier on the front line. Zoë Roberts is constantly hilarious as Johnny Bevan, the bureaucratic man ultimately in charge, Ian Fleming with his eccentric ideas for a spy novel, and Haselden, our out-of-his-depth ‘man in Spain’. David Cumming is a riot as the shy, panicking, nerdy Charles, while Claire Marie Hall excels as the artless young assistant Jean.
Many of the routines seem like classic comedy- music hall even. For example, there’s a scene where all five are exchanging and getting tangled in hats, phones and a briefcase, with clockwork precision. And there are moments of stage magic when they change characters and costumes in the blink of an eye.
The cast are greatly aided by having director Robert Hastie and choregrapher Jenny Arnold on board. Both are highly experienced and it shows in the slickness of the production. And yet Operation Mincemeat retains the feel and excitement of a fringe show. The theatre is one of the smallest in the West End with a stage to match. Ben Stones‘ set is deliberately sparse with a couple of desks and chairs, a display board and a mobile staircase, plus a backdrop reminiscent of a map, and, that staple of farces, lots of doors. Until that is, we launch into a very non-fringe-like finale, complete with glittering Nazis, which really is as ‘glitzy’ as they announce.
The songs cross a number of musical genres, with clever, witty lyrics that are often delivered at the sort of breakneck speed that may remind you of Gilbert and Sullivan or Frank Loesser. How about this?
If we cannot storm the beaches / It’s sure to spell defeat / If the muscle-men can’t do it / Call the masters of deceit.
In a way, there is a parallel between the small MI5 team that pulled off this unlikely deceit that helped an invasion, and the small group that created this unexpected hit that invaded the West End. It is an incredibly polished, laugh-out-loud musical, and one that deserves to run and run.