Inventive new musical theatre writing is alive, well… and currently thriving mightily in Southwark where comedy troupe SpitLip's unruly, ferociously clever tranche of so-strange-it-could-only-be-non-fiction showbiz insanity is enjoying a rambunctious return season. Since a pre-pandemic outing at the New Diorama, it has acquired a director (Donnacadh O'Briain), and something approaching cult status. The additional confidence these impart suits the show well. It's still about 20 minutes too long and, at least on press night, several audience members seemed to be anticipating some of the excellent jokes before they landed. Despite all that though, it fair takes the breath away with its wit and masterly compounding of seemingly every musical theatre cliché in the book, into something genuinely fresh and irresistibly funny. It's also pretty sick, in both senses of the word.
Like a scattershot, adrenalised alliance of the Cambridge Footlights, Little Britain and The Rocky Horror Show, this bonkers musical centres on a real-life WW2 incident whereby the British Secret Service wrong-footed the Nazis by casting an immaculately suited corpse adrift in the Mediterranean with a briefcase full of official-looking, but entirely bogus, government documents.
The creative team use this extraordinary premise as a peg on which to hang some erudite, eclectic musical pastiches (Felix Hagan's often memorable score recalls everything from Gilbert and Sullivan via Kander and Ebb and Billy Elliot to Hamilton, complete with rapping), inspired clowning and multiple role-playing from the brilliant young cast (some of whom are founding SpitLip members), lots of jazz hands, and a fairly savage parody of elitist British bureaucracy. This spoofing has acquired a particular resonance in the light of the last 18 months, even the last couple of days, as the audience laughs bitterly at a group of privileged upper-class men, strong on self-confidence but fatally weak on everything else, bumbling insensitively and incompetently through an ever-worsening global situation. It's undeniably hilarious but it feels more chilling now than it did two years ago.
The cast is a playful, versatile, gender-switching quintet, with fine voices, bags of energy and some serious comedy chops. Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Roberts are particularly riotous as a couple of unusually pompous men from the ministry, and Jak Malone is a real find, delivering with broad yet precise brush strokes, roles as diverse as an improbably glitzy pathologist, a hearty American pilot, and a genteel, lonely, unexpectedly touching female civil servant.
The lyrics are breathtakingly sophisticated and sassy, although a better sound system would make it easier to enjoy them, as might a slightly less relentless and frenetic performance style, and the storytelling lacks clarity. O'Briain's staging, expertly choreographed by Jenny Arnold, could afford to take its foot off the pedal a little more often: wonderfully amusing and zanily outrageous as it mostly is, the anything-for-a-laugh modus operandi does wear a bit thin at times, and one feels increasingly grateful for the occasional quiet moments. Chief among these is ‘Dear Bill', a heart-catching ballad pining for a lost pre-war lover, exquisitely put over by Malone, who sensitively negotiates a fine line between camp and sincerity.
Certainly not a quiet moment but one of several where the show achieves heights of inspired lunacy, is a thunderous second-half opener that sees the whole company decked out as – I kid you not – hip hop dancing Nazi stormtroopers transforming in the blink of an eye into the quietly stoic inhabitants of a Naval submarine. It's in sections like this that Operation Mincemeat becomes entirely its own eccentric, delightful beast, as opposed to an ingenious extended mickey-take, and the effect is ecstatic.
A certain amount of fat has been trimmed from earlier incarnations of the show, to telling comic effect, but it could still lose a little more of its comic bloat. Ultimately though, this remains something very special: an ambitious, darkly humorous, highly original new musical that achieves lift-off repeatedly and joyously, with some cracking songs, a shrewd brain in its dizzy head, and the revivifying sparkle that comes from exciting new talent. This may be a limited season but don't be surprised if Operation Mincemeat is back for much longer in the very near future. The cast album will be a must, too.