Classy people can get away with anything. It’s a depressing fact that we’ve seen play out time and time again in modern politics – but it long predates the era of excuses that aren’t really excuses. In the mid-20th century, Operation Mincemeat—a little-known and ethically dubious plan to help Allied forces win World War II—was one example. MI6 would illegally obtain the corpse of an unknown homeless man, dress him as a Royal Marine and float him out to sea, where his body is believed to be from a plane crash. To make the lie even more realistic, they created a whole personality for the man, tampering with documents to place on his body as well as fake files suggesting that Britain was really looking to invade Sardinia – not Sicily. It’s such a ridiculous plot that it couldn’t be invented, even for a musical.
Turning the true story into an award-winning historical musical (an unrelated Colin Firth movie is due out later this year) is theater company SplitLip, with a show best described as a staggering high-energy explosion. We have Nazi raps with glittering swastika armbands; feminist anthems with “Single Ladies” dance steps; and, uh, James Bond author Ian Fleming. He has all the subtlety of an M4 Sherman tank crashing from sketch to sketch – and that’s all the better for him.
Operation Mincemeat itself was the plan of nervous, insect-loving intelligence officer Charles Cholmondeley (David Cumming). Though Cholmondeley is smart, he lacks the confidence of Ewen Montague (Natasha Hodgson, defiantly assuming the male lead), a mumbling posho who enters the chambers pool first. “Monty” tells him that “with your brains and my literally everything else” they can easily convince the powers that be to go through with the plan. If the fate of the nation placed in the hands of “very deceitful men” seems a little close to home, it’s a coincidence that SplitLip would like to play for laughs. “I don’t know what’s going on!” “Welcome to the UK Government” is the subject of an exchange, while jokes about “drinks at No 10” draw the biggest laughs.
But the thematic references can seem like a distraction from Ground Meat Operation‘s real magic is that it’s a totally awesome musical. SplitLip’s lyrics are densely packed with puns, with each line containing rhyme upon rhyme upon rhyme. Operation Mincemeat has the quick humor of a fringe show, but its full musical length never feels like a drag. Comparisons with hamilton and Six are unavoidable (this is a historical musical where the characters burst into rap – what did you expect?), but Ground Meat Operation matches musically and is funnier than the two. It certainly helps that the musical talent featured is exceptional, both from the live band and the cast. The melodious soprano tones of Claire-Marie Hall, which enhance each harmony, are a particular highlight.
As the five-person cast moves in and out of character, stereotypes are used to distinguish their parts. The women play the men and the men play the women (largely for comedic effect), but the show isn’t afraid to allow for poignant moments. In one scene, office matron Hester (Jak Malone) offers to write the letter claiming to be written by the fictional soldier’s fiancée at home. It would be easy to play this for Mrs. Brown’s Boys-esque, “isn’t it funny that a man pretends to be an older woman” laughs, but Malone’s performance is so breathtakingly tender that his cock melts on stage. The song and performance would look out of place on any non-comedy West End show; the pain in Malone’s eyes seems completely sincere. It’s the most obvious display of the heart that’s threaded through Ground Meat Operation – even among the silly accents, Boris jokes and comical noses.
‘Operation Mincemeat’ runs at the Southwark Playhouse until February 19