‘It was crying out to be turned into a big, silly, glittery musical’: Felix Hagan & Zoë Roberts on the West End transfer of Operation Mincemeat

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Recently crowned winners of the Best Musical Production at the Off West End Awards, SpitLip is set to move their hit show Operation Mincemeat to the West End for a limited run this spring; they take over at the Fortune Theatre, following The Woman In Black‘s haunting 33-year run.

Singin’ in the Rain meets Strangers on a Train, Noel Coward meets Noel Fielding, Operation Mincemeat is the fast-paced, hilarious and unbelievable true story of the twisted secret mission that won us World War II. The question is, how did a well-dressed corpse wrong-foot Hitler?

The West End cast comprises David Cumming, Claire-Marie Hall, Natasha Hodgson, Jak Malone, Zoë Roberts, Geri Allen, Christian Andrews, Seán Carey and Holly Sumpton, with musical direction from Joe Bunker.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Felix Hagan and Zoë Roberts of SpitLip to discuss the musical theatre development process, War Magicians, Mincefluencers, and – checks notes – Colin Firth? As you can imagine with such an exciting new addition to the West End, there was plenty to talk about – so much so, I’m going to tease you with part one of our chat and make you wait until next week for the rest…

Felix Hagan: The four of us knew we really wanted to work together – we’d worked together in various different guises and iterations and projects over the years, and we were just determined to write a proper, full-on musical together, and tried to do something funny that people would enjoy. And we were hunting around for a story, such is the way of things these days; if you want to get a musical made, as they cost an awful lot of money, it’s going to greatly help if it’s an adaptation or a true story or something like that.

Good old Tash (not with us today, who plays Monty in the show and is one of the writers) was on holiday with her family, and her brother happened to recommend the Stuff You Should Know podcast, which was all about Operation Mincemeat. Tash had a listen, sent it to all of us and there was never any doubt that this was the story. It simply had to be; it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever, ever heard in my life, and it was crying out to be turned into a big, silly, glittery musical.

Zoë Roberts: That was a short six years ago now, I think? We’ve always been people to give ourselves a bit of a challenge – you might be able to guess – so from the very first moment we got maybe two songs written. Then we signed up for a little scratch night at the Lowry in Salford, a venue that’s supported us loads over the years, just to kind of get some stuff in front of people and road test it; that was in 2018, I think? And that went quite well, and one of the songs actually is still in the show, which is really nice – a song called ‘God That’s Brilliant’, which is all about trying to kill Hitler. The other one… We won’t talk about, it didn’t make the cut!

After that, we applied for a five-week run at the New Diorama Theatre in London – as you do – and they gave it to us, the idiots! And suddenly we had to write a two-act full musical, which we’d never done before, in the space of about nine months. So that really gave us a kick up the arse – it turns out that it’s harder than it sounds! But we debuted the show in May 2019 at the New Diorama, so that’s when we first put it in front of audiences, really. And we’ve been desperately toiling with it ever since!

I did actually see your first run at the New Diorama and have followed the show ever since – it’s been nice to see how it’s changed over time.

ZR: So you saw the bad version, goddamnit! Don’t tell anyone!

Were there any parts of the Mincemeat story that you really wanted to have in the show, but felt were too ridiculous even for this?

ZR: A hundred percent. If we included everything that we researched, it would be like the Harry Potter play where you go in the afternoon and then come back in the evening… We stripped back to the stuff that we had in there from the moment we were developing it, partly just because there wasn’t time and we thought “we have to strip some of the nonsense away so that you care about these characters”. The whole spy operation centres around using a corpse to hoodwink the Nazis, and the guy who drove the corpse and the guys running the operation to a submarine base in Scotland was an ex-race car driver, who was short-sighted but refused to wear glasses, so was ploughing over roundabouts at 1am, nearly crashed into a cinema, all of that kind of stuff – he was mad. There was a War Magician called Jasper Maskelyne, who was also working for the same government department – his job was to do magic tricks on the Germans… We included all these amazing, amazing things, and we had audiences in feedback sessions go, “Yeah, this is all well and good, but you can’t make stuff up, guys. It’s history – you’ve got to try to respect it.” And we were thinking, “But it is, we promise!” If we could’ve had our way, Jasper Maskelyne the War Magician would’ve had his own ten-minute montage! So even the stuff that we’re left with, everything comes from the story, everything comes from fact. There’s a character, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who is actually an amalgamation now of two characters – another guy called Bentley Purchase, and again you can’t make this stuff up…

FH: Sir Bentley Purchase.

ZR: Was he a sir as well? Gosh, they were all sirs. One was a coroner and the other was a pathologist. We had a pathologist who believed that he could tell the cause of murder by sniffing a corpse, and we had a coroner who liked to play practical jokes on people when he brought them into the morgue, because he thought dead bodies were so funny. Originally we had both of these guys in the show (we thought “this is gold”) and we’ve had to compress them into one maniac who just loves dead bodies, for better or worse. There’s just too much material in here, we could go for days on it.

It sounds like you could have a trilogy or individual shows just on all of these people.

ZR: Yeah, just spin-offs and spin-offs and spin-offs! Along with all the songs that we’ve cut.

“It was crying out to be turned into a big, silly, glittery musical.”

Felix Hagan

In the show you’ve got quite a few different styles of music going on, performed by presumably a fairly small band tucked away offstage – how did you approach coming up for the ideas for the kind of songs you wanted to write?

FH: You’re right, it’s a very small band – up until now we’ve had a band of three, and that’s not going to increase hugely as we move forward. I think all four of us share a philosophy on these sorts of things, which is that to pigeon-hole oneself into one genre, to say that a musical should sound like an album (insofar as it’s one sound, one genre throughout), it does it a bit of a disservice. Especially in the world of comedy, where reaching into different genres, different musical traditions, and different groove templates is such a wonderful, magical paintbrush for colouring in and shading the comedy & the action of the piece. Especially if you’ve got a thing like ours, where it does bounce around all over Europe, a little bit. We originally thought, “Should we make it sound like it’s the ‘40s?” and make it sound all jazzy, mixed with bucolic, pastoral British classical music kind of stuff…

ZR: I’m bored just hearing that sentence.

FH: Yeah, I’m dozing off! We’ve all got microscopic attention spans (some of us medically!), so why pigeon-hole yourself? Use all the music! Use all of it, and make it as open as possible.

ZR: It blows our mind that the standard way of writing musicals for, it seems, the last hundred years has been one old man sits at the piano and writes some songs, and then another old man writes a play in a different room, and then after a year they come together and see what’s happened. It’s kind of crazy that usually you have that weird separation of Church and State; you have characters in the script and then you get them singing, so there’s this weird disconnect between that and how they speak. There’s four of us: we’re a collaborative writing team so we’re all contributing to everything, which makes more sense to us. Three of us come from a comedy background, which I think influences this, because with comedy we start with: “What’s the funniest way to do this? Let’s find a sketch moment in this story we want to tell, and just make that into a scene and start stitching things together.” I guess we approach the material similarly at the beginning; rather than sitting down and saying “What’s scene one? How does it start?”, instead we would be looking through the source material and going “Hey, what about a song where a load of people try to kill Hitler?” or “Oh my God, there’s this amazing letter that they wrote to stow on the corpse’s body that’s kind of a love letter – let’s turn that into a song in this style”. I think that’s why it also is this kind of patchwork of everything, because all we’re doing is thinking “What’s the best music for this moment?” to get the audience to connect with it and have the best time.

It definitely makes it more interesting to watch as well, if you’re not hearing the same style over and over again.

ZR: I think one of my favourite moments in performance is a song by one of the female characters, Jean. It comes at about maybe 15-20 minutes in, and I feel like by then the audience are kind of settled; they think they know the vibe. They’ve had some slightly more, let’s say ‘traditional’ musical theatre elements (our version of that), and then we come out with a completely contemporary, poppy, R’n’B dance number. And you can kind of feel the audience doing a bit of a double-take. “Wait, you can’t do that… Wait, stop – oh my God.” Because it lights another fire under everybody, and it’s also just really fun to just go “Anything can happen, so strap in!”.

Operation Mincemeat runs at the Fortune Theatre from 29 March – 8 July 2023. Tickets are available online or via the box office.

Featured image credit: Matt Crockett

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