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Operation Mincemeat | Review, The Fortune Theatre  

History has never been so much fun! Best New Musical, Operation Mincemeat, will have you corpsing with laughter, at the Fortune Theatre.

The year is 1943, and the Allies are plotting a daring deception. In the deepest recesses of MI5, a plan is hatched to get the Nazis out of Sicily, enabling an Allied invasion to turn the tide of World War II. The plan was to dress up a corpse as a British airman, handcuff a briefcase to him filled with ‘top secret plans’ for the British invasion of Sardinia (not Sicily) and drop it in Spain, where it would be found and given to the Nazis. Sound like the plot of a particularly unlikely spy novel? Well, the plan was called Operation Mincemeat, and not only is it 100% real, but it actually worked!

Given the incredible nature of this story, how best to remember this audacious achievement, and those who made it happen? In a documentary, maybe? A very serious play, perhaps? Nah! How about a comedy musical, with quick changes, actors playing cross-gender, and of course… rapping Nazis!

Operation Mincemeat opened at the Fortune Theatre in May 2023 and has been wildly successful ever since. Winning the 2024 Olivier Award for Best New Musical, it has gone from strength to strength. In May, the cast changed for the first time, and it was this new cast that I got to see perform the show in June.

Right from the start, the comedic tone of the show is set with the brilliant song ‘Born To Lead’. This song sees the actors (3 female, 2 male – all dressed as men) going on about how they are of a different breed of men, and are the ones who will lead the Allies to victory. That is, all except for Charles Cholmondeley (brilliantly portrayed by Seán Carey) who is fairly low on self-worth, and declares that his highest achievement was having a fight with a rare breed of trout! It is Charles, of course, that comes up with the plan for Operation Mincemeat, although he is scared to present it, until the overly confident Ewen Montagu, takes it on himself to help Charles get the plan approved, and take half the credit too. ‘Monty’, played in all his arrogant charm by Emily Barber, is your typical white male Eton boy. Having him played by a woman is a stroke of genius, as it allows the actor to really send up the type, in a way that would be less amusing if played by a white man. Barber seemed to really relish playing the smarmy self-satisfied Monty, and I for one thoroughly enjoyed her performance.

Chlöe Hart expertly portrays Colonel Johnny Bevan, the operation’s commander, as well as popping up at the beginning and end of the show, for a bit of a laugh, as Ian Fleming – “you’ll never get a publisher for those silly spy novels, Fleming”! Chlöe has a couple of songs where she’s called on to do some pretty impressive rapping, which immediately invoked thoughts of Hamilton for me, and she did so with flair and ease that was as impressive as it was amusing.

Writing about a 1943 event for a modern, theatre-going audience, the writers wanted to ensure that the female characters were given as much attention as the male, especially as the ladies of the civil service were very much the unsung heroes of the war. To this end, the characters of Jean Leslie, the young and tenacious ‘new girl’, played with gusto and flair by Claire-Marie Hall, and her older, wiser, much more reserved boss, Hester Leggett, delicately portrayed by Christian Andrews and Jonty Peach, are given equal stage time and significance as the male characters. The ladies’ oft forgotten contribution is also the subject of a particularly amusing and touching song between the two characters, ‘Useful’, that really highlights the situation of being the support staff behind the “heroes”. There is also a great fun number early on, ‘All The Ladies’, that see all the actors, male and female, donning a blouse and skirt and singing about what a great opportunity the war presented for women to step into traditionally male jobs.

You may have noticed that I mentioned two actors in the role of Miss Leggett. This was not a typo. It turned out that Christian Andrews was very unwell that night and he was replaced by Jonty Peach at the interval. All I can say is that the audience would never have known he was not feeling 100%; his performance was subtle, moving, and showed no signs of what must have been going on under the surface. A true testament to his exceptional talent and professionalism. Despite being sick, when Hester is composing a letter for the corpse to have on him from his fiancé back home, in the song “Dear Bill”, Andrews reduced me to tears with the genuine emotion of his performance. As for Mr. Peach, in the second half, he performed the part with equal sensitivity and talent, and you would barely have known the actor had changed, save for their having different faces. This is a brilliant example of how an understudy in professional theatre is required to be equal in every way to the lead and no one need ever be disappointed to hear that a lead actor is being covered, when attending a show.

As well as each playing their main roles, all the actors of this small cast of (usually) 5 also play numerous other roles throughout the show. One particularly notable ‘extra’ role is that of bodies ‘expert’ – this qualifier is questionable at best – Sir Bernard Spilsbury OBE. Played by Andrews (first half) and Peach (second half), this character is hilarious and clearly devoid of integrity. His costume is a black butcher’s smock, with a sequined cape, and top hat. He was covered in sparkling ‘blood’ spatters – hundreds of dark red sequins/crystals – that added to the flair and showmanship of this morally bankrupt body obsessional.

Another wonderful side character is the bumbling Bevan, the MI5 agent in Spain, who is the source of much comedy as he tries to get the Spanish to swallow the story and give the briefcase to the Nazis (or not to, as the case may be). Great performance by Chlöe Hart in that role.

Ben Stones’ costume design was not all as much fun as Spilsbury’s, with the main characters in smart office wear or military attire, but there were a lot of very quick character changes – one song in the second half had about 5 changes in it – and there were brilliantly done and must’ve taken a lot of clever planning and design. His sets were equally versatile, with few big changes but lots of small adjustments (a desk or two brought in, etc.) to create the different locations. I loved the little touches, like the Union Jack pattern in the wooden desks, for example, that added to the sense of fun in this show that deals with potentially heavy subject matter with a light touch and a lot of laughs.

The show’s finale includes a nod to Glyndwr Michael, the real name of the corpse that became Officer Bill Martin of the RAF, and shares the poignant story of the plaque that now honours him in Huelva, and commemorates his vital part in defeating the Nazis. This was particularly moving after having witnessed the whole story and I loved that they included it.

Operation Mincemeat is a hilarious history lesson, with an ingenious script, a brilliant new cast of exceptional performers, and songs that will have you reaching for your streaming service of choice to enjoy them again as soon as you’ve left the theatre. Tickets are booking fast until January 2025 – hatch an incredible scheme to get yours, today!

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Words by Nick Barr

Photography Matt Crockett

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