The last time I visited the Fortune Theatre was as a teenager to see its long-term resident The Woman in Black. I’m delighted to say that its successor richly deserves to become a West End stalwart in its own right, providing as it does a compelling blend of sophisticated musicality and lo-fi raucous charm.
Operation Mincemeat, which started life at New Diorama in 2019, retells the true story of an operation during World War Two to distract the Nazis away from the British plan to invade Sicily. The ruse was simple but cunning, to drop a dead body masquerading as an RAF officer off the coast of Spain together with a briefcase of false information.
SpitLip’s show is set largely in the offices of MI5, where the entitled officers who believe themselves “born to lead” vie to have their mostly mediocre subterfuge plans accepted by top brass. Among them is budding Bond novelist Ian Fleming and thrusting charmer Ewen Montagu, who spots the potential in newt obsessive Charles Cholmondeley’s plan.
Written by cast members David Cumming, Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Roberts alongside Felix Hagan, there are resonances of everything from Hamilton and Six to Gilbert and Sullivan. There are also homages to Monty Python and Mel Brooks, and even a nod to Flanders and Swann. It feels both utterly contemporary and nostalgically throw-back. And it balances genuine hilarity with enormous heart, particularly in the West End’s most unlikely showstopper, “Dear Bill”, movingly sung by Jak Malone as secretary Hester Leggett composing a fake letter to a serving soldier.
Robert Hastie’s production feels perfectly sized for the Fortune’s diminutive stage. Despite some evidence of a bigger budget in Ben Stones’ LED-illuminated back wall, it retains its fringe vibe, with even a mic failure on press night only adding to its appeal. As with its near neighbour The Play That Goes Wrong, it hasn’t lost that feeling of being an underdog done good.
The five-strong cast are uniformly excellent, with Hodgson and Cumming proving a perfect double-act alongside Claire-Marie Hall as plucky “typing pool girl” Jean, Roberts in a range of roles including inept spy Haselden and the aforementioned Malone bringing pathos alongside laughs, particularly as gruesome undertaker Bernard Spilsbury, supplier of the all-important cadaver (there are four additional cast members who appear at certain performances).
This was my first encounter with a show that has been around now for four years, and it’s always a worry coming to something that has been so heavily hyped at a late stage. Well, it more than delivers, and stands as a shining example of homegrown talent – among many things it’s just so very, very British. It’s also a reminder of why these smaller West End theatres are so vitally important, and are wasted when clogged up by longrunners. But having said that, I don’t anticipate the Fortune being available again for some time to come.