As may become painfully obvious from this interview, I’m something of an Operation Mincemeat fan. Having been bowled over by the musical during its original 2019 New Diorama run (giving it a full five-stars, no less), it’s been exciting watching the tireless cast and creative team fine-tune, re-write and amend the piece across spells at Southwark Playhouse’s two spaces, as well as during a pre-West End run at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.
Even Covid hasn’t halted Mincemeat’s inexorable success – given it now gears up for an eagerly anticipated run at the Fortune Theatre. The show’s premise, for the uninitiated, involves a group of MI6 operatives who hatch a plan to fool Hitler into thinking Allied forces will be attacking Greece (their true intended target was Sicily) using a preserved corpse, a briefcase of falsified documents and lashings of good luck.
Chatting with the piece’s award-winning writers SpitLip – composed of David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Roberts (Cumming, Hodgson and Roberts also star in the show) – it’s striking just how much thought and attention has been heaped upon a show that could so easily have been a one-and-done zany fringe comedy.
Hagan kicked off reflecting on the last five years of development: “It’s been such an incredibly long process but we all agree that, even though we’ve been working on it for five years, but at no point did we think ‘for god sake, it’s finished, just put it on already!’. We’ve known we can always make it better – at every single stage. And we still feel that way.”
Cumming added: “We did set out to write a commercial musical – that was part of our aim. But it had to be done in a way that didn’t sacrifice our style and art. That said, doing it by following in the footsteps of a big West End show like The Woman in Black has raised the stakes – though then again it’s a sign of fresh blood coming in – and maybe that’s nice. Even so, The Woman in Black is a wonderful show and I’m sad to see it go.”
While aspects of Operation Mincemeat mimic the likes of Hamilton, sea shanty, vaudeville and straight-up musical theatre ballad, the style and art Cumming mentions was born and raised in the fringe environment, with Roberts, Hodgson and Cumming’s all part of much-loved company Kill the Beast. But reaching the West End must feel like a different ball park, I suggest. Hodgson replies: “We’ve spoken about this quite a lot since it was confirmed. It’s a nice mixture of gratitude, baffle-dom and an awareness that we really couldn’t do any more than we’ve already done to get here. So in one sense it’s absolutely ridiculous that we’re taking this show into the West End, but I also think if it hadn’t happened this way, I don’t know what we could have done.”
The show has gone through some sizeable alterations over the years – numbers have been cut, endings have been changed, characters have been re-allocated. I ask whether reaching the Fortune mean this is the last iteration of Mincemeat – that the end might be in sight? Hodgson isn’t too sure: “If this is the final incarnation – if this is the last boss of Operation Mincemeat – then we want to make sure we can walk away from it knowing that it’s ended in a place that we wanted to get to all along. We had a Zoom call yesterday where we decided to change something that’s been the same since 2018! So it’ll be strange when we reach a stage that we can’t write something on the bus on the way to the show and shove it in.”
Hagan adds: “It’s been a really hard process to get to that point. Normally MT is written by fewer people – there’s not this beast with four heads. But I think having this group of people here has helped keep that energy up over the five years, even when we’re on our fiftieth re-write of the opening or something. You almost want to make it better for each other.”
Some numbers have been jettisoned – cabaret-style number “Let Me Die In Velvet”, which wrapped up act one, has been replaced with a different tune, while a bombastic kick-line finale was taken out in favour of a more sentimental, moving conclusion. So those who saw Mincemeat along its journey may encounter something nice and different come its West End premiere.
What is most striking is the way that the show’s subject matter can be cast in so many different ways. The original run at the New Diorama emphasised the absurdity and wackiness of the premise of the Operation, tying it to wider questions of British jingoism. Later versions highlighted richer themes – the way in which the rich blithely continue with their lives consequence-free even in periods of intense suffering, or how the poor and homeless are so easily written out of history.
Some of this is by design, but other times it’s simply current affairs doing the work for the team, Roberts explains: “Everything that the show is saying and doing is becoming more and more relevant every day. When we first did the show, Brexit had just happened, but Boris wasn’t there. The second time we did it at Southwark Playhouse, Boris arrived and, in the process, gave us a bit of a gift. So then the ideas of a system where privileged people, often lacking in proper qualifications, are thrown into positions of authority felt very pertinent.” Hodgson takes up the thought: “We’re don’t resist making changes if they bring out topical themes – we threw in lines to do with the change in leadership during the Riverside run last year, so I’m sure we’ll do it all over again. It’s too juicy not to.
“Everyone’s incredibly cross, and tired, and it’s hard not to address the prescient links. At the same time, we never wanted to reach a point that we’re just making a satirical ‘got-ya’ show – that’s not what we want Mincemeat to be.”
A lot of this involved challenging audience assumptions about the period, Hodgson says: “We always saw it less of a war story and more of a spy story. And the thing is that spy stories are so much more fun than war stories. I think the way we’re taught history, often making out that the Brits were the best in the world, also forgets the fact that far too often it was all Etonian boys lying and capering around having a great time. So we knew we could knock down a few so-called truths about the establishment.”
Roberts adds: “It’s not a history lesson, it’s important to think about what it means being performed today.”
But the humour came naturally, Hagan says: “Any account of the actual Operation Mincemeat has details that are so objectively, fundamentally and incredibly funny. There is no universe where you learn about the bat-sh*t things that happen and don’t laugh your head off.”
Roberts agrees: “Reading Ewen Montegu’s (one of the characters and senior MI6 figures in the show) book about Operation Mincemeat makes it clear that he was having the time of his life. He was having so much fun. They were all getting into it and having a great time – probably out of escapism rather than anything else. It feels like it’s this gang-comedy that’s begging to be told.”
Cumming chimes in: “We didn’t have to add anything to make it feel like a revisionist-take of World War Two – it already felt like it questioned this image that we have of this drab, ration-filled world of Britain in the 1940s.”
But balancing that comedic take with pertinent, character-driven themes is where SpitLip sees the most transformation in terms of the show’s tone, as Hodgson says: “Our background is comedy, so we were very comfortable coming at it initially presenting the Operation as a ‘whacky, mad-cap scheme!’. However, having the space to develop the show also meant we had space to develop as writers and artists – and we could hone in on the human elements, like the letter song [“Dear Bill” – a heartbreaking earworm] – and really delve into these characters. A lot of this involved listening to audiences and finding out what they loved. The comedy came first, but then we grew as writers into the truth of the story.”
Cumming commented: “We sort of knew the ending in the first run wasn’t quite right. We knew it was fun, and bombastic, but something wasn’t right. Ultimately it took feedback, growth and maybe us softening a bit over lockdown in order for us to find an ending that honoured the homeless man Glyndwr Michael, who gave his body in order to save so many people. It is his story, to some extent, and coming back to that suddenly hit the mark.”
The West End show will see a cast of five (the Southwark and Riverside cast are all returning, as confirmed last month) but there will be understudies and covers. That in itself brings some fresh artistic opportunities, Hodgson says: “We’re so excited to open out these parts to others – we don’t traditionally look or sound like the standard West End performer – but we want to make parts for those who don’t have millions of parts to choose from in this medium and genre.”
One bold decision for the production was to price every seat in the auditorium at the same £35 rate during previews. Roberts explains the logic: “We are desperately trying to make sure that people like us could come to see the show, or could afford to see the show. The accessibility of it was important, and we wanted to bring that through to the West End.”
Hodgson adds: “We’re sick of being in an industry where we can’t go and see the art that we make. It’s just a fact that, as artists, we can’t go to West End shows right now! We’re lucky that our producers Avalon agreed that the show needed to be accessible. During previews every seat is at £35, but even after that we want to make sure there are cheap nights every week throughout the run – and those cheaper seats aren’t stuck behind a pillar or something.”
Cumming admits it’s something of an experiment, but it sits right at the heart of SpitLip’s ethos: “Will it work? Who knows, it’s a new model – we’ve not done it before and neither have Avalon. But it feels like it’s the closest we can get to the show’s heart.”