Rarely does a show leave one genuinely speechless, but Mincemeat, Cardboard Citizens’ promenade production at Cordy House, does just that. Adrian Jackson and Farhana Sheikh’s play, set variously in 1909, 1943 and 2009, is a brilliant exposure of attitudes towards the most vulnerable members of our society, the deceit contained within myths of war and the slippery nature of memory.
In 1943 the body of a British soldier washes up on a beach in Spain. The documents in the briefcase found alongside it are intended to confuse the Germans as to the plans of the Allied powers. The Germans’ subsequent decision to divert troops away from Sicily to Sardinia was a major turning point in the war. It was said at the time that the military man whose body was put to such heroic use was a Major William Martin; this turned out to be merely a smokescreen however, and the true identity of the man remained secret until 1997. Mincemeat thrillingly unravels this mystery.
Cordy House is a disused building that provides a hugely atmospheric context for the promenade performance. Mamoru Iriguchi’s design works effectively with the space, creating among other setting a 1940s mortuary, a Blitz-era air raid shelter and a bombed out homeless hostel, all of them completely convincing. We are led from room to room, through smoke-filled hallways or down hidden staircases. It is testament to the skill of the company that we become entirely disorientated during this process, forgetful of the nature of any reality other than that which we are being invited to view. The experience is so evocative it is disconcerting, particularly in the final scene in the shelter where actors and audience sit together on dirty bunkbeds, clothing dangling from lines strung between the filthy walls.
A true ensemble production, the cast of Mincemeat is without a weak link. Ifan Meredith as Major Martin and Robert Gillespie as Charlie lead the plot with assured performances, their fellow cast members taking on a wide variety of roles to complete the dramatic picture. The frequently unusual casting decisions reveal the cast’s impressive adaptability. Jakob B. Goode’s Agnes is a sweet and funny portrait and deserves particular mention.
There are flaws in this production: moments of high emotion are handled with less subtlety than they deserve (a criticism to be laid at the door of director Adrian Jackson rather than any individual performer) and the final scenes might carry a greater power if they didn’t follow the jolt back to reality that the interval creates. That said however, this is an extraordinary show which is ambitious in its scope: Jackson and Sheikh’s script includes references to Shakespeare, war poetry and Charlie Chaplin films, and addresses not just issues of prejudice and historical truth, but also the role of theatrical representation itself in analysing the past and the parts we play in it.
Cardboard Citizens is a charity for homeless and displaced people as well as a professional theatre company and it's inspiring to witness the effectiveness with which they combine extremely high quality, powerful dramatic work with a far-reaching social vision. This is a show that everyone should see.