I saw three shows during my busman’s holiday in London over Martin Luther King weekend. Of the three, the most ‘English’ was Operation Mincemeat, an uproarious musical satire based upon an actual event from World War II. In an attempt to divert a Nazi invasion from Sicily to Sardinia, the British intelligence service created a plan to fool the Germans. It involved a corpse and a briefcase of phony documents. The dead body was that of a laborer who swallowed rat poison.
Hardly sounds funny, does it? Especially obtaining an actual dead body and arranging for it to crash land in Spain. Yet the show was uproarious and the audience at the Fortune Theatre in London was hysterical for more than two hours.
I knew that the event had occurred, but I didn't realize that the names of the characters were real as well. (You can find their pictures online.) One of the intelligence officers was Ian Fleming who keeps referring to the character in the book he’s writing.
The cast of five works really hard. They are always onstage and assume several roles, costumes and accents. Often women played mens’ roles and men played the women’s parts. The creators of the play have multiple roles: Natasha Hodgson (a hilarious Ewen Montagu and others) , David Cumming (the awkward Charles Cholmondeley and others) and Zoe Roberts (Johnny Bevan, Ian Fleming etc. Felix Hagan, the fourth creator, worked with them on the book, music & lyrics.
Rounding out the cast is Jak Malone and Claire-Marie Hall. In addition to playing the submarine captain and the creepy coroner, Malone stops the show with his role as Hester Leggett, the prim, staid MI15 secretary singing the lovely ballad “Dear Bill.” Hall portrays Jean Leslie, a young woman who yearns for the chance to do more than make tea. She sees the war as an opportunity to make her mark. She represents the unsung women heroines in the war.
There’s a manic sense to the action in Operation Mincemeat. The performers move and speak quickly and director Robert Hastie incorporates a lot of physical comedy. One scene has the actors exchanging and weaving telephones wires and a briefcase. It’s a version of cat’s cradle, an old children’s finger game.
History notes that the operation was successful but since it was covert, it was kept quiet. It wasn’t declassified until 1996 when the name of the body was finally released.
The musical ends with a “Glitzy Finale,” a splashy Hollywood ending as part of the making of the movie. In typical frenetic style, Montagu is lifted in the air by wires that malfunction, naturally.
Doing research on the show, I learned that a dramatic film had been made of Operation Mincemeat starring Colin Firth. The movie is available on Netflix in some regions. I’m looking forward to watching it, but it won't be any fun; it may offer some history but it won't have any laughs. You need to go overseas for that.