Musical “Operation Mincemeat” – Gets Better and Better With Every Run

Stage a coup
For your mothers and your sisters too
(“Move Up” * ~ Operation Mincemeat, Spitlip, 2019)

*No idea if that’s actually the song title

Soooo, where to begin with a report about seeing this mindblowingly good musical for a 2nd and 3rd time? Maybe by stating how much I would love a cast recording of this, so I can finally learn all the words to all the tunes to sing (or rather mouth / hum) along to, when I’ll see it the next time, because I definitely will hope to see this again in the future. Sadly I won’t be able to make it to the next run at the Southwark Playhouse in May 2020, but I’ve got all my fingers crossed that they’ll be able to keep moving onward and upward with this show and if they do, I’ll definitely be there for a 4th, 5th and many more times. Because I really enjoyed it and think it’s a unique, new kind of musical theatre. I like the people who made it and I wish them all the success in the world. They deserve it.

[I know an official cast recording won’t happen anytime soon, but a girl can dream, right?]

Everything I wrote about it last May when I saw it for the first time is still true, so I won’t repeat much of it and just ask you to re-read it here, if you like. And if you haven’t read it or haven’t seen the musical for yourself, you definitely should read it to make sense of all the following. But still here is a short synopsis: Operation Mincemeat is the story of how some people at MI5 during WWII came up with an absolutely ludicrous idea how to bring fake intel to Hitler’s attention in a way that Hitler believes it, moves the German troops and thus the course of war was changed. It’s a true story. Colin Firth will be starring in a movie about this as well, which will come out later this or in the next year. But I doubt his Motangu can hold the water to Tash’s one in the musical version of it. I’ve got a bit of a girl crush on her, whereas Colin Firth is… alright, I guess. So we’ll see. Anyway, as I wrote in last May

It has got everything from sea-shanty to heartbreaking love song, from feminist powerful Spice Girly pop and a power ballad full of self-doubt to the big show tune celebrating extravagance in life in spite of the ongoing war. The music overall was amazing and so were the lyrics. I was impressed by the wit and emotions and the pace of it all.

That was still true. And as the musical is still a bit of a work in progress, it was quite interesting to see what changes they made over the last few months. They added at least three songs as far as I could tell or recall from the first time. Cut a few lyrics from songs here. Added a bit of dialogue / monologue there. It was fascinating to see and it definitely made it an even slicker performance. Not that I have much experience with musical theatre, so my frame of reference might be a bit askew. I’m still in awe of the variety of music genres and styles they managed to blend together in this and to create so many memorable and catchy tunes. I spent some time on the first leg of my trip back home this morning jotting down all the songs I remembered and I got to at least 20. Of those I could (and did and do randomly whenever they pop up in my mind) hum / sing about 10, because they got stuck in my memory obviously. I don’t mind though. At all.

I loved the new opening song “Special Boy”, which is definitely a keeper in my eyes. The same goes for the new (I think) solo song the character of Charles Cholmondeley is singing towards the end. But I’m partial to Charles in this story, so of course I’d like this song to stay. Chatting about the whole thing afterwards, someone remarked that this one would also work well on a Felix Hagan album and I agree. Songs about emotional turmoil and self-doubt and how to get through this…. Right up my alley. The third new song was the final number and even though I liked the whole glittery, over-the-top showman tune / choreography in general, I’m still a bit on the fence about what to think of it as the show’s grande finale. Just like the finale scene last year it focuses on the next phase in Montagu’s life, which I assume is what they want to end the show on. But I admit I would have preferred if the show ended with some variation of “Making a Man”, because to me that is the main theme / song of the show. To be honest, that new final Montagu song hasn’t embedded itself into my memory yet, so I couldn’t hum it now even if you paid me. I have no idea how to merge “Making a Man” with the idea of ending the show on the next phase in Monty’s life, but… that’s why I’m the one with a rather ordinary job in an office and not a musical writer ;-) So many of the other songs were still as catchy and witty and funny and brilliant as I already mentioned last time.

From what I could tell, they kept the dialogue pretty much the same. They didn’t rewrite the story or history after all. I loved the addition of the… let’s call it “Newt Anatomy lesson”, because it was absolutely hilarious each time. There are two themes in this story I think they shed a tiny bit more light one this time around. One is the entitlement of the privately educated, rich, white men working at MI5 during WWII. The opening song is about all of that for crying out loud and it’s such a hilariously funny and spot-on song. Sung about the men at that time, but when you look at who’s running the UK government / parliament right now…. Cut from the same cloth right down to ludicrous looking family crests and all. The other theme, I feel they might have upped a bit, is the whole women in war time / feminism issue. Maybe I’ve imagined it, because after two amazing Women of London Walking tours this week, this was an issue on my mind. I’m not sure if the song in which Hester encourages Jean to keep fighting for her place in this male dominated world was new or not. I definitely really liked it this time. The other moment, I don’t recall from last year, but definitely noticed and appreciated this time, was when Jean told Charles off for assuming that they were sitting in the same boat: Being overlooked and underappreciated. Because Jean was right: it wasn’t the same! As a white, middle or upper class, well educated man Charles had many more doors open to him than she did. And sadly enough that’s still the case in so many areas of our lives 75 years later. And so many men still don’t see it! Ugh! So, yes, I’m quite glad, Jean put him in his place.

On this second run I was able to pay a bit more attention to the clever costume and stage design (by Helen Coyston) and the way they set up the stage and how they used all the drawer cabinets not just as filedrawers, but by moving them around also as office desks and chairs, tables at the Ritz or at a nightclub, stretcher in the morgue and much more. It was also incredible to watch how neatly they used the drawers to store various props and/or parts of their costume to seamlessly switch from one scene / role to the next and back again. Yesterday I tried to keep track if there is more than one drawer that store those props or if it’s all in the same one and it just looks differently, because it’s been moved around a lot. But I lost track after the first few numbers, because there was too much going on ;-). Looking back now I marvel at the genius idea to set up the stage like this. It looks so simple, but there is so much potential and they make such clever and amazing use of it. And in the rare unplanned moment when a prop isn’t where it is supposed to be (on top of one’s head in that case), they brilliantly dealt with that too. While they kept singing!

Last but not least, I need to write about the people on stage. First of all the band, as the foundation for all these wonderful songs and dance numbers. Felix Hagan on keys, Lewis Jenkins on drums/percusssion and Ellen O’Reilly on bass guitar. It’s almost hard to believe it was only three people creating this rich, sonic background for the cast, right down to the tambourine and the cow-bells ;-). Well done guys! And then there was this incredible cast, who are all very good singers and widely talented actors.

Claire-Marie Hall: The new “kid” on the block on this run and she did such a good job as Jean Leslie and in all her other roles. From gossip journalist to seductive nightclub singer to possibly my favourite of her supporting roles: “Steve”, the eager assistant to Haselden, the British Official in Spain.

David Cumming: Ever since I heard his song “Dead in the Water” at the show last year, I felt some kind of kinship to his main character Charles, with all his self-doubts and anxieties. David plays him so wonderful nerdy, without ever turning him into a laughing stock. It was such a joy to watch this “lolloping sidekick” use all of his body to bring Charles, but also the various supporting characters to live: A secretary, an inquisitive Scottish submariner, a Spanish pathologist…

Jak Malone: I sang his praise already last time and while back then I was most impressed and moved by his main character Hester, this time I was able to fully appreciate his wide range of talent and how easily he took on role after different role. From Hester, the matron of secretarial staff, to the super, super, super creepy coroner on to the jolly American airforce pilot and a few more. And yes, of course he made me cry again. And again. After the show yesterday, I told him they need to provide tissues with the tickets next time. And I’m not kidding.

Natasha Hodgson: When you hear that Ewen Montagu, one of the main male character of this story is played by a woman, you might wonder if that really works. Trust me. It works. At least Tash is making it work so effortlessly. The arrogance, the swagger, the outrageous confidence… but my favourite bit might have been the squirming, when Monty’s secret is found out in the end. Absolutely bloody brilliant. She also did a great job with her other roles, like the agent rapping along when Beavon explains how they plan to win back the mainland or the judge in the Spilsbury number and the gossip journalist (even without a hat *g*).

Zoe Roberts: After seeing the show this week I feel bad for not having properly acknowledged her in my blog post last year. She does such a great job as John Beavon, the strict and stoic head of MI5 and thus the boss of basically everyone else on stage. And she excels in the supporting roles of a decidedly weird Ian Fleming, a glamorous celebrity pathologist and especially the bumbling British Official at the Spanish coast. Her facial expressions as Haseldon are incredible and the whole suitcase scene with the Spanish pathologist, played by David, are pure comedy gold.

To round this up: I think, these guys are amazingly talented and they created a unique and wonderful musical here: Moving and inspirational and OMG so very, very funny. Plus over a dozen of catchy songs, which will get stuck in your head for a very long time after. It was definitely worth making the trip over the Channel for and I hope their next run in May will sell out as well. They deserve it. And if it’s sold out soon, I won’t be tempted to do something incredibly insane and expensive on that first Saturday. So… go buy these tickets! And with that hopefully enable them to put on this show at another, even bigger theatre sometime later this year or next year and I will definitely try to be there. Because as they have Ewen Montagu put it in the nightclub in Scotland: “The world’s a mess. Small flashes of joy – that’s all we can hope for.” This production of this musical definitely is a huge flash of joy for me and I’m looking forward to my next visit. Wherever, whenever that will be. And I wouldn’t mind a cast recording to tide me over till then… ;-)

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