Southwark Playhouse, London – until 18 September 2021
Take this as a report not a review, because actual work commitments made me skip at the interval. But I was persuaded to the long 70-minute first half by a friend, who said “kill for a ticket”. And also by doubt. by having heard about the Spitlip ensemble as clever, musical, inventively eccentric and – unusually – 60%female comedy troupe. Also I knew for years about the 1943 war office Deception Plan of the title, devised in part by Ian Fleming and recorded in the book The Man Who Never Was, later in Ben MacIntyre’s book Operation Mincemeat, and in a stiff upper lipped 1956 film lately on TalkingPicturesTV. There’s a new one out in 2022 I see.
Anyway, the scheme was grisly: to persuade the Germans we were invading Sardinia not Sicily, by dressing the corpse of a tramp as a pilot with a briefcase of fake plans, and taking it refrigerated by submarine to wash ashore in Spain. The body came complete with fake personal papers, receipts, theatre tickets and a love letter. Bill never existed in reality, but the paper trail was meticulous, spyproof.
It worked. But was this something for a band of young singing, dancing, mocking 21c comics to turn into a cabaret show? I did wonder, which is why even knowing I’d miss the denouement, I bought a ticket. Southwark after all rarely disappoints.
So I can’t star rate it, but can faithfully tell you that yes, it works and you’ll not regret it. It starts full-on jokey, with the three women enjoying being absurd male MI5 stiffs, carolling about being born to lead, with the browbeaten nerd scientist Charles and, deliciously, Jak Malone as a prim Moneypenny. Character comedy doesn’t come much lovelier than a balding chap in a rumpled grey shirt channelling with deadly accuracy a middle-aged government clerklady of the 1940s.
Until he morphs effortlessly into a disgracefully guyed Bernard Spilsbury, coroner who locates a body. Despite the squeamishness of the officials. All good fun.
But just as I started to wonder again about the treatment of war and death this way, like all good comedy troupes they turn it round to empathetic humanity. The love letter has to be written, from the fictitious Bill’s fictitious girlfriend. And after a sentimental aria about birds from two others, Malone’s Moneypenny primly reminds us that some of them have been through one war already… and she sings the most heartbreakingly , deliberately banal and restrained of wartime love letters. We guess she had lost a boy, and says… “anything that gives any of those boys a fighting chance”.
And suddenly we are on the docks and the five are submarine crew singing deep and sailorlike, plainer and more serious again, leaving the bright patter songs and clever rhymes alone, just men the mysterious container. Then there is a nightclub burlesque where the team try to relax, intercut with the moment when the sub crew , horrifiedly obedient, send the body to its destiny.
I may go again. Meanwhile, do give it a go yourself.. /Friend who was able to stay says it goes on being wonderful…