New Diorama Theatre, London – until 15 June 2019
Musical theatre excels at turning an otherwise serious subject into an extravaganza of high camp. Though it’s easy to dismiss such approaches as light and frivolous, SpitLip – a new company formed by members from Kill the Beast and Felix Hagen & the Family – tell the true story of a British intelligence operation with plenty of panache and satirical social commentary (and heaps of high camp) in this smashing new show.
Cholmondeley and Montagu are ‘deskies’, working behind the scenes on British military strategy in 1943. They fulfil all the stereotypes of ‘posh’ and then some, forming the central double act of the story. The former is a high-strung and bumbling scientist obsessed with nature’s least glamorous creatures, and the latter is a smooth-talking sophisticate who won’t take no for an answer.
They are played by David Cumming and Natasha Hodgson respectively, and both deliver excellently heightened performances. When Montagu discovers a bizarre scheme that Cholmondeley dreamt up involving planting the corpse of an imaginary soldier on the Spanish coast, he’s determined to make the plan a reality regardless of what rules need to be bent to make it happen. If the pair were real today they’d be chummy with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, but in this context, that makes them all the more ridiculous.
The ensemble of five are impressive multi-rolers portraying the staff of two different British war offices, a submarine crew, restaurant and bar staff and dancing Nazis – just to name a selection. Cross-gender work is the norm, with Jak Malone as Hester, General Bevan’s (Zoe Roberts) PA, a particularly wonderful example alongside Hodgson’s Montagu.
Though the initial exposition is somewhat rushed and the closing epilogue isn’t needed, the book has more depth and detail than is usually seen in new musicals. The songs are excellent all around, paying homage to a variety of styles from hip hop to power ballad to sultry cabaret. There are also plenty of delightful moments borrowing from other musicals. The lyrics are a mix of witty, sophisticated and down-right punny, but always clever.
There are so many traps new musicals can fall into – underdeveloped books, bland music and unclear concepts – but Operation Mincemeat avoids these with flying colours. This is all that new musical theatre can be, proving that it’s not just the domain of the Americans working on Broadway.