We adore Operation Mincemeat, the ridiculous World War II musical comedy about to open on the West End at London’s Fortune Theatre. As with many events over the last couple of years, our initial plans to check this show out were scuppered by a bout of Covid – but we snaffled tickets to see it a couple of weeks later during its 2021 run at the Southwark Playhouse and awarded it a perfect score. We reviewed it again during its 2022 run at the Riverside Studios and again gave it full marks. Ahead of the musical’s West End debut we caught up with its creators, SpitLip.
SpitLip are David Cumming, Natasha Hodgson, Zöe Roberts and Felix Hagan – who between them have written and composed the musical. We grabbed half an hour to Zoom in with this quartet to chat about the show ahead of previews, which begin later this month. First of all – why should our readers be interested in Operation Mincemeat?
David: “It’s a great fun, unexpected night out, and also it’s a quietly queer show. It’s playing with different ideas of who gets the limelight, who gets the microphone, and gender roles, but that’s not the meat and potatoes of the show – it’s just baked into what you’re watching. You get to see women taking on male roles and stomping around… who doesn’t want to see that?”
Natasha: “Also you get to see men actually do romantic ballads that aren’t just about heteronormative topics.”
David: “So it’s actually quite a forward-thinking piece of queer theatre, without necessarily being about queer themes.”
It’s a lot of fun chatting with this quartet – with the interview often veering away on some entertaining tangents. Each member of the troupe is Zooming in from a different location, and Felix is calling in from his (parked) car.
Natasha: “Felix, have you got your hand on the steering wheel there?!”
Felix: “I’m trying to look cool for the Gay Times!”
Natasha: “You have succeeded! That’s a boy who knows how to drive a car.”
David: “Which is what all the gay men want!”
Felix: “I hope the owners don’t turn up…”
We should probably get on with asking some questions about the show. Operation Mincemeat is a pretty madcap – yet remarkably, entirely true – story. How did you find out about it?
Natasha: “We knew musicals were hard to make; we knew it needed to be either an adaptation or a true story, and we just couldn’t find what we wanted and we were bitching and moaning about it. I was on holiday with my family and I was talking about the trials and tribulations of being an artiste and searching for source material… my brother took out his headphones and was like ‘I’m actually listening to a podcast that would make a great musical’ and I was like ‘sure you all think the podcast you’re listening to is gonna make a great musical – it’s not that easy!’ – anyway, turns out it was a Stuff You Should Know podcast about Operation Mincemeat. And he was absolutely right! I’ve never forgiven him.”
How did this all start and how has the journey been so far?
Zoe: “It was 2017, way back when the world was a different place. We realised we’re not very good at writing something unless we actually have someone to perform it to, so the very first thing we did was sign up for a scratch night at the Lowry in Salford, which is an amazing venue that has supported us loads in the various work that we’ve done. We just signed up for 10 minutes of a scratch night, so that we actually had to do something! We wrote two songs for that: one of them remains in the show, it’s called ‘God That’s Brilliant’ and it’s been with us the whole time. The other song was mainly about trout.”
Natasha: “Ahhh, the immortal line – trout ticklers beat Hitlers! As true now as it ever was.”
Felix: “Great lurers, beat Fuhrers!”
Zoe: “So we did that scratch night and we thought, well this seems to be going well… why not apply for a five week run?? We’ve got two songs – it’s the logical next step! So we managed to get a slot at the New Diorama Theatre in London, an amazing champion of new work. They were giving longer slots to emerging theatre companies making new work, which was such a gift, we performed there in the summer of 2019 and so suddenly we had to write a full-blown musical having never done it before. Never done a two act show. It was easy, can’t stress how easy.”
Natasha: “It was just so simple!”
Zoe: “You would not believe how polished it was! So it’s kind of gained momentum from there, we’ve had an amazing response from audiences. We’ve been rewriting it and performing it and working on it ever since, really. With a little bit of an interlude for a small pandemic, you might have heard of it…”
We are somewhat familiar with the pandemic, having missed Operation Mincemeat and numerous other shows after coming down with Covid in the summer of 2021. Perhaps we shouldn’t dwell on that… you said you keep working on the show, can we expect any changes since the last run?
David: “I’ll answer this question because I’m partially the reason we’ve got five weeks of previews! I broke my collarbone cycling to rehearsals during the Riverside run, so we had to somewhat down tools as a writing team to even keep the show on. We didn’t quite get around to making all the changes we wanted to in that run, so there are still some things that we need to test out in front of an audience, some new bits we’ve wanted to put in, and just tightening the screws.”
Natasha: “We’re really excited for it to finally be finished! It will happen, we will finish it. It really feels like every change that we make gets us a micro step closer to what we want it to be. Hopefully after these previews we’ll be sending out – pretty much – the finished version!”
What’s your favourite song in the show?
David: “You can’t just drop that on us!”
Felix: “We’ve been working on it for so long, and because every single song has had quite a staggering number of different versions, and rewrites and rejigging and you get to the point, we all have our different ways of saying ‘alright it’s done now’ but for me the barometer is there’s the joy, a moment where it just becomes the best thing you’ve ever seen. Now it’s just like an absolute cluster bomb of bangers!”
Natasha: “OK so what’s your favourite song, then?”
Felix: “The entirety of Operation Mincemeat – I think of it as one huge song [laughs] and All The Ladies.”
Zoe: “I think I was going to say All The Ladies actually. It comes quite early in the show, and the show is quite eclectic in terms of its musical references and styles – it feels like we’ve just given them [the audience] about 15 minutes to settle into what they think the show is going to be, and feel like, and look like, and sound like. And then we pull out something which is drastically more contemporary sounding, is a banger, is a dance number, and is women singing about being women! And it feels really nice to sense an audience just about settling back then sitting forward and going… wait? What? Hang on – they can do this now? OK!”
Natasha: “Some sort of special mention has to go to Dear Bill. It’s a surprise that we wrote it, it’s a surprise that it made it in, and then a surprise to the reaction of it. It’s by far the most vulnerable song that we’ve ever written, we had never written anything like it before so it was quite scary, putting it on stage. We say that we’ve messed with the show loads but the very first performance of Dear Bill is basically identical to how it is now, I think we bottled some sort of weird magic with it. But we’re very grateful that people seem to get it and have raised it up for us to see in a way that we didn’t really know that we had done.”
Our favourite is Dear Bill – gets us every time and we don’t know why! We know it’s coming, we know where the emotional punch is going to land, and yet it still gets us…
Natasha: “Oh that’s really nice, I’m glad.”
David: “Apologies for the tears!”
Ahem [wiping away tears] – so when can we expect a cast recording?
Natasha: “We want it just as much as everyone else but the thing is, we just need to finish it!”
David: “Once it’s done then it will be put into the annals of history for sure.”
Natasha: “We can promise that we are desperate for it to exist, in a medium that’s not just us going on stage and doing it. As much as anyone else we can’t wait for it to exist!”
Zoe: “A hologram version of the show, maybe?”
David: “Yeah once Abba have moved out of that place we’ll just take it over!”
Zoe: “Bring on the holograms!”
We’d actually pay very good money to see that – of course we don’t have to, as they’ll be performing it live on the West End pretty soon. The show contains quite a quirky collection of songs – are you influenced by other musicals or styles?
Natasha: “In terms of musicals we were quite inspired by Legally Blonde and Book of Mormon. I remember all of us sitting down together trying to sort the opening, taking apart bit by bit like… Omigod You Guys and Hello – how are they doing this? All the characters are there, all the premise is set out! It was through dissecting them that we would eventually land on our opener, Born To Lead. So thanks guys for that tuition!”
Felix: “In terms of composers it always comes back to Lionel Bart and Cole Porter for me – melody which is so bound up with the lyricism, and lyrics are percussion, everything is a drum. The joy of words – oh god I’m just very excited about music! But those particular composers for me, there’s no compromise, the melody needs to really soar, the lyrics have to be really funny and hit the ear in the right way. Then you marry that with lovely characters and a plot and hey presto you’ve got a musical!”
Natasha: “Also, Hamilton hit for us, it was like, musical theatre can be this?? It can be so dense, it can be so dextrous. So Hamilton, if you’ve not heard of it [laughs] – it’s really going places!”
Thanks for the tip, we’ll be sure to look out for this up-and-coming, and definitely not super famous already, new musical by the name of Hamilton. Perhaps it will catch on?
Finally, we wanted to ask about the Operation Mincemeat film, as that’s a new development since the musical first appeared – have you seen it and do you have any thoughts on it?
David: “We haven’t! Our version is in our heads so much then, maybe once we’ve got ours out of ourselves…”
Natasha: “I dunno… either it’s really great, and that would suck, or it’s really bad and that would suck. I don’t think I’m a good enough person to get anything out of that viewing experience.”
David: “It was quite a surprise for us, when we were in year two or year three of writing this and then suddenly it was like… and here’s Colin Firth, there’s going to be a movie! But it’s all turned out for the best, I think; for a while we were worried, like ‘that’s our show dead’. But thankfully they didn’t take it in a comedy way.”
Zoe: “Of course, we were also trying to get Colin…”
Natasha: “The only film version we want to make is the Muppet version, so if you’re listening Kermit get in touch! We’re ready! [Singing] Dear Kermit, I’m afraid I’ve not got long to write…”
And with that the four members of SpitLip are off, presumably to start work on the hologram show for the Abba arena… or more likely to continue rehearsals for the West End debut of Operation Mincemeat. We can’t wait to have this show back, and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Operation Mincemeat opens at the Fortune Theatre on 9 May, with previews from 28 March. More information can be found here.