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  • Henry Longstaff

Interview: Operation Mincemeat

SpitLip’s Zoë Roberts and Felix Hagan talk Colin Firth, Mincefluencers and the evolution of Operation Mincemeat ahead of its West End opening.

The cast of operation mincemeat stand in a line holding telephones with criss crossing wires
Photography: Matt Crockett

Rehearsals are underway for the West End transfer of the plucky and popular Operation Mincemeat, a comedy musical from the marvellous minds of SpitLip. Utilising macabre humour, the show tells the true tale of deception and clumsy heroics that enabled a smoother liberation of Sicily at a pivotal time during the Second World War. Ahead of their opening, I sat down with SpitLip members Zöe Roberts and Felix Hagan to hear their perspectives on the continued success of their award-winning new musical.

Through steady iterations, Operation Mincemeat has been rapidly making its way through many a London venue. Opening for the first time in the 70-seater New Diorama Theatre in 2019 - a feat that Roberts still finds impressive, “can’t quite believe we did it in that small of a space now, with a band on stage doing a full musical,” before moving to Southwark Playhouse then most recently in 2022 transferring to the Riverside Studios for an extended run in Hammersmith. “It's been great, gradually working on the stagecraft and working out what we put on stage for bigger audiences, but equally making sure that we don't lose the heart of the show.” Now making a home in the West End at The Fortune Theatre she assures that, “it's equally kind of small, it's intimate,” meaning audiences are going to be close to the action, often so vital with comedy.

Asked about how they’ve approached making changes to the piece as it has evolved, Hagan answers “the beautiful thing with comedy, of course, is that you have this very helpful barometer in the room - are people laughing at the jokes? And we're very lucky to have people who have been seeing it almost constantly throughout the many different runs and they give us wonderful feedback which we’re able to sort of merge with our own instincts as to what's working and what's not working.” Audience reaction being key for the team when pushing the production forward even if that means reworking or replacing specific beats to promote a moment that has significantly more potential.

Speaking of loyal audiences, I bring up the fan base that has amassed around the SpitLip team, aptly named the Mincefluencers - Hagan exclaims “It’s the absolute best, god we love those folk.” Roberts adds “They're incredible. I think it's really shown how word of mouth has made this show what it is and got us where we are. The advocacy they've done is amazing.” It’s a testament to the show that conversations between theatregoers are carrying more weight than any billboard or flyer could dare to hope for. Audiences vocally supporting and celebrating small shows is incredibly important, “we cannot overemphasise how much of a difference that makes to the future of this kind of work.”

During its most recent run last summer, there was some novel competition in the form of a blockbuster film of the same name featuring a certain Colin Firth in the leading role. Hagan explains that it didn’t feel like a competition, “it turned out to be a wonderful thing. You’ve got lovely Colin with his big, successful Oscar-winning face all over the place, educating the world on Operation Mincemeat and crucially they didn’t make it a comedy!” The fact there even was a film emphasises the significance of the true story, encouraging audiences further, allowing the SpitLip team to swoop in with some toe-tapping tunes. “Without Colin, but with more songs,” suggests Roberts. A slogan for the posters surely?

I inquire about why Operation Mincemeat. Why take a semi-obscure piece of history from the Second World War and turn it into a comedy musical? “I think when we read the source material, it's interesting that obviously the film didn't do this, but it kind of leapt out as a comedy to us. We couldn't really think of any other way to tell this story. It's this incredible true story about a World War Two spy operation that involves getting a dead body and dressing it up as a pretend person. You know, people running around town pretending to be this person, living the life of this person with all sorts going wrong. It was a bit haphazard. These guys were kind of winging it, but at the same time, they used this body to help turn the tide of World War Two, which is kind of insane.”

“It’s equally a story about the people at the top of the pyramid, the kind of privileged people you might see in Parliament, one might say. Privileged people who have money and power and who are basically having the best time ever making these kinds of decisions and changing the course of history, but without necessarily a real sense of responsibility for it. During lockdown when Partygate happened, we’d already created the show by then, but it was a kind of a gift because it was exactly what we were already pointing to. Saying that those people in the upper levels of the establishment seem to be having the best possible time, getting by on charm despite the weight of responsibility that should be lying quite heavily on their shoulders. So for us, it felt like an important thing to be saying and an important message, but at the same time it's just a really, really silly story that allows us to have the most possible fun on stage.”

Hagan explains that they had to cut portions of true madness out of the story, “in earlier iterations we had these bits and bobs still in there and we had people going you can't just lie, you can't make it up! So we got rid of the guy that drives the corpse up to the submarine base, who is actually incredibly shortsighted and can't see but refuses to wear glasses so they almost crash into a cinema. We got rid of the war magician who was working for the government during the war creating pretend tanks and trying to trick the Germans with all sorts of magic. We've had to strip away the top-level insanity to keep just the fun level of insanity that people can just about go with us on. But that's the great thing it's this mad comedy - everything in there is baked in from history, from true stories. Sometimes we've amalgamated things, you know, we've merged various corpse-based characters, but everything in there comes from that original true story, which is why we love it.”

Roberts turns the conversation to how SpitLip approach their storytelling, “I think we're also very aware that one of the things that helped make mincemeat quite unique is the fact that we do gender-bending casting. You know, men play female characters, women play male characters and it's not done as a kind of drag or for comic effect. You cast the person who's right to play the character. It doesn't matter what gender we're talking. The show exists in a world in which somebody puts a hat on and transforms into an American pilot from 1942 - it’s fine.”

Finally, I ask the big question, why should people come and see Operation Mincemeat? “First and foremost, it's going to be a really, really good night out. The world is miserable and hard at the moment, and god, don't we need more comedy? I can't believe the West End isn't just flooded with comedy, because I can't cope with a serious play at the moment. It’s full of fantastic tunes and people being spectacular idiots on stage, but at its core, it's a heartwarming story about a bunch of people achieving the impossible. And yeah we're terrified by how many tickets we have to sell, so also we'd really appreciate it!”

Operation Mincemeat begins previews on 29th March and is currently booking until 8th July at The Fortune Theatre.

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