From Cabaret and The Sound of Music, to South Pacific and From Here to Eternity, World War II has provided plenty of inspiration for musical theatre. The focus, though, has often been the human consequence of war, as written by (if not always featuring) Americans. For their new musical, SpitLip (a company which includes Kill the Beast members Zoe Roberts, David Cumming and Natasha Hodgson and composer Felix Hagan) has created a WWII musical with British flair. Operation Mincemeat centres on one particular event, a feat of British espionage that helped turn the tide of the war. Here, though, it’s seen through a modern comic lens that portrays the operation as more bumbling luck than anything, ripe for spoofing.
The operation itself involved the Allied invasion of Sicily, held at the time by Hitler’s troops. British intelligence disguised a dead body as a fictitious Captain, complete with faked documents that suggested an invasion of Sardinia and Greece instead, and planted the body in Spain. The Germans took the bait, moved their troops out of Sicily and allowed the British to swoop in to victory.
This production takes the opportunity to lampoon almost everything along the way. It begins by showing British intelligence as a bunch of Eton and Harrow alumni: pompous, snooty and privileged. The actual plan, though, comes from a typically nerdy and unlikely hero, who sings his plight through power ballads. From there, we have Hamilton-esque rap numbers of political arguments; Spice Girl-style feminism in a particularly sassy routine; dancing Nazis in a Britney Spears music video; a sultry bar singer mixing jazz with disco in a number about wanting to die dressed in velvet.
If that seems a bit all over the place, know that it does all come together in its witty script. Kill the Beast are known for their fast-paced comedic style and that ensures Operation Mincemeat is energetic and snappy throughout, rarely pausing for breath. Not every joke lands, but the script is chock full of punch lines and asides that roll on from one to the next.
Its knowing humour is delivered with so much winking and nudging it’ll make your eyes hurt, but the musical is at its best when the cast finally slow down for a moment. One particular number is a monologue letter to a loved one away at war that’s sweetly sung by Jak Malone. It’s a rare moment of humanity amongst the cartoonish characterisation, and it’s genuinely moving.
More of this heart would have resulted in a more balanced show. Instead, there’s often more comedy than depth. Its feminist subplot – where a female operative desires respect from her male colleagues instead of just making the tea – feels under-developed, and the characters are all stereotypes: pompous, nerdy, bumbling, sassy. It’s the sort of show that would make for a great night out at the Edinburgh Fringe – consistently hilarious and not too taxing to enjoy over a pint.
The show’s pacy approach is reflected in a breathless mix of musical styles. From rap, to jazz hands musical theatre numbers, to modern pop ballads, it keeps you on your toes with irreverence and pastiche. The songs were written collaboratively by the cast and musical director Felix Hagan, and maybe that accounts for the eclectic mix of styles, all carefully staged and reprised. Indeed, the music is indicative of the show as a whole: smartly funny, well-crafted, and glibly entertaining.
Operation Mincemeat is on at New Diorama Theatre till 15th June. More info here.