Southwark Playhouse – until 19 February 2022
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
SplitLip’s comedy musical about one of the most insane WW2 operations is a triumph. Operation Mincemeat was a deception to convince German command that the Allied invasion would be centred on Sardinia rather than Sicily. The genius/gruesome plan devised by British intelligence involved planting fake papers about a Sardinian invasion force on a corpse that would wash up on a beach in Spain for Spanish officials and German operatives to find. The story has been portrayed in the frankly po-faced film “The Man Who Never Was” and a new film is released this year – although after seeing this production, Colin Firth has a lot to live up to.
With a minimal set – basically a bank of telephones, some multipurpose cabinets and a moveable door, director Donnacadh O’Briain takes us from London offices to nightclubs, to Southern Spain and a submarine as the bonkers plot unfolds – it all has a Comic Strip Presents feel, but with a much warmer heart.
It is impossible to talk about the plan seriously, and SplitLip go straight for the comedy jugular, with most of the intelligence officers acting as if they are still in the common room of a public school and utterly convinced of their superiority. A few topical jokes are thrown in about drinks at number 10, but the depressingly familiar parallels are not over emphasised. One of the intelligence men is Ian Fleming, providing a lovely running joke as his colleagues tell him how terrible his writing is. As the man child behaviour carries on, the women in the office sing a fabulous Beyonce style number about the opportunities the war has given them. The efforts to find a suitable corpse and to provide a credible life story and paper trail are fascinating and very, very funny, especially when Jak Malone’s kinky coroner is onstage. It’s not all plain sailing, with a possible double agent, some bizarre coincidences and shoddy preparation creating jeopardy and comedy gold.
Natasha Hodgson has a ball playing Ewen Montagu as a complete chancer leading the man with the plan, meek outsider Charles Cholmondeley, astray. David Cumming is wonderfully awkward as Charles and Claire-Marie Hall is a joy as secretary Jean Leslie – the plucky gal role if this was a 1950s film, but here a fully rounded young woman relishing being valued for her ideas. Zoe Roberts is deliciously daft as our hapless man in Spain, and is also the calm, mature axis of the show as Johnny Bevan, watching the antics of his men with increasing frustration and disbelief. Jak Malone’s beautifully judged portrayal of Hester Leggett creates one of the most moving moments in the show as Hester sings about what should be included in love letters to the dead airman.
SplitLip’s lyrics are fast and funny, cramming more laughs into one song than some productions manage in an entire show, and covering a wide range of musical styles, with Jenny Arnold’s inspired choreography adding to the hilarity – you’ve never seen Nazi’s move like this. Amongst the hilarity are poignant reminders of the seriousness and human cost of the mission – switching mid-song between debauched scenes in a London nightclub and the quiet tension of the submarine crew as explosions rock the vessel. The mission ends with a glitzy finale, but then the show ends with a quiet but stirring tribute to the man who never was – Glyndwr Michael.
Like its inspiration, this musical straddles the line between genius and madness. Operation Mincemeat is warm, funny and unforgettable – crying out for a West End run.