Striking a decent balance between detail and maintaining interest, Operation Mincemeat is, on paper, an unlikely candidate for a musical adaptation. A Second World War tale of deception involving the corpse of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless man who had moved from Wales to London, and a set of fabricated documents, the operation required much painstaking work by very earnest people. This stage show plays to the gallery. It features stereotypes of both Germans and Americans, and even by its own admission declares a blockbuster motion picture of the same name to be a more profitable enterprise.
That said, the show’s self-knowing sense of humour works in its favour. Quite a few of the musical numbers advance the narrative through lyrics so rapid one is at first inclined to think of Hamilton, but with the (exaggerated) clipped tones of intelligence officers who were once public schoolboys – there are rather more like patter songs with a contemporary twist. Some of the humour is, in a word, puerile, but this fits the context and the setting: the gung-ho approach taken by commanding officer Ewen Montagu (Natasha Hodgson) sets the tone from the start.
Some of the prevailing attitudes are indicative of the heady days of the British Empire, when people in positions of power believed Britain to be invincible. But not everyone brims with confidence – Squadron Leader Charles Cholmondeley (Sean Carey) seems almost impossibly nervy, with some colleagues apparently completely unaware of him even six years after joining the Directorate of Military Intelligence. There’s no faulting the comic effect Cholmondeley’s near-constant apprehensiveness creates, however, not least when it results in random questions about the anatomy of newts during pivotal conversations.
With such variation in musical styles, there’s bound to be something for almost everyone. A high-tempo second-half opening number, complete with flashing lights and sprightly choreography, about the bravado and aspirations of the Third Reich is swiftly met with exasperation as soon as the audience’s applause ends: “Really? Whose side are you on?” The somewhat matronly Hester Leggett (Jak Malone) brings the house down with a ballad about the sort of content a soldier’s loved one might put in a heartfelt letter to the frontline.
Johnny Bevan (Zoe Roberts) is a bombastic figure of authority, then there’s Jean Leslie (Claire-Marie Hall), who begins as a member of the typing pool but volunteers ideas that are sufficiently attention-grabbing to land a more pivotal role in the execution of Operation Mincemeat. Well, according to this production’s version of accounts, anyway – I cannot vouch for the authenticity of every detail in the show, and it would not surprise me if some creative licence was deployed.
The salient points, however, are all in the show, with five actors performing multiple roles, sometimes with breakneck character changes. Having suspended disbelief at the theatre doors, it’s pleasing to note that audience members do not need to know anything about Operation Mincemeat before seeing the show. At the same time, those who know ‘everything’ about it will still find the show sufficiently intriguing.
There are some subtle nods to the current political climate – the idea that people in power believe they can behave as they choose is asserted with a knowing wink. The old-style telephones that line the rear of the stage are used to great effect, though the miscellaneous long cords that eventually tangle the characters are far from a metaphor for the show: this complex operation is easy to follow throughout. It helps, too, that the sound design (Mike Walker) allows every line to be heard with crystal clarity. An utter triumph, this is a delightful and engaging production.
Review by Chris Omawqeng
The year is 1943 and we’re losing the war. Luckily, we’re about to gamble all our futures on a stolen corpse.
CAST: David Cumming, Claire-Marie Hall, Natasha Hodgson, Jak Malone, Zoe Roberts, Understudy – Anouk Chalmers.
TUESDAY 14 JUNE – SATURDAY 23 JULY 2022