Posh people can get away with anything. It’s a depressing fact we’ve seen play out many times in modern-day politics – but it long predates the age of not-really-apology apologies. Back in the mid-20th century, Operation Mincemeat – a little-known, ethically dubious plan to help the allied forces win the Second World War – was one such example. MI6 would illegally obtain the corpse of an unknown homeless man, dress him up as a Royal Marine and float him out to sea, where his body would be assumed to have come from a plane crash. To make the lie all the more realistic, they created a whole personality for the man, doctoring documents to place on his body along with faked files suggesting that Britain was really looking to invade Sardinia – not Sicily. It’s a plot so ludicrous that it couldn’t be made up – even for a comedy musical.
Transforming the true story into an award-winning historical comedy musical (an unconnected film starring Colin Firth is coming later this year) are theatre company SplitLip, with a show best described as a staggeringly high-energy explosion. We have rapping Nazis with glittery Swastika armbands; feminist anthems with “Single Ladies” dance moves; and, erm, James Bond author Ian Fleming. It has all the subtlety of an M4 Sherman tank crashing its way from one sketch to the next – and is all the better for it.
Operation Mincemeat itself was the plan of nervous intelligence officer and insect enthusiast Charles Cholmondeley (David Cumming). While Cholmondeley is smart, he lacks the confidence of Ewen Montague (Natasha Hodgson, taking on the male role with defiance), a mumbling posho who enters rooms pelvis first. “Monty” tells him that “with your brains and my literally everything else”, they can easily convince the powers that be to implement the plan. If the fate of the nation being placed in the hands of “very underwhelming men” feels a little close to home, it’s a coincidence SplitLip are keen to play for laughs. “I don’t know what’s going on!” “Welcome to the British government” goes one exchange, while jokes about “drinks at No 10” get some of the biggest laughs.
But topical references can feel like a distraction from Operation Mincemeat’s real magic,, which is that it is a totally brilliant musical. SplitLip’s lyrics are densely packed with puns, every line containing a rhyme on a rhyme on a rhyme. Operation Mincemeat has the fast-paced humour of a fringe show, yet its full-length musical run time never feels like a drag. Comparisons to Hamilton and Six are inevitable (it’s a historical musical where characters break out in rap – what did you expect?), but Operation Mincemeat matches up musically and is funnier than both. It certainly helps that the musical talent on display is exceptional, both from the live band and cast. Claire-Marie Hall’s lilting soprano tones, which enhance every harmony, are a particular highlight.
As the five-person cast zips in and out of character, stereotypes are relied on to distinguish their parts. Women play men and men play women (largely to comic effect), yet the show isn’t afraid to allow for moments of poignancy. In one scene, office matron Hester (Jak Malone) offers to pen the letter claiming to be written by the fictional soldier’s betrothed back home. It would be easy to play this for Mrs Brown’s Boys-esque, “isn’t it funny that a man is pretending to be an older woman” laughs, yet Malone’s performance is so breathtakingly tender that his gender melts away on stage. The song and performance wouldn’t be out of place in any non-comedy West End show; the pain in Malone’s eyes feels utterly sincere. It’s the most obvious display of the heart that is threaded through Operation Mincemeat – even among the funny accents, Boris jokes and comedy noses.
‘Operation Mincemeat’ runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 19 February