As one of the best new and upcoming shows out there, Operation Mincemeat has taken smaller venues by storm, and is now on its way to the Fortune Theatre at the end of this month. Hilariously depicting the mad events that were surprisingly genuine during the Second World War, the production puts a cracking soundtrack to these, for a performance that undoubtably won't be one you forget.
Two of the team, Zoe Roberts and Felix Hagan, have kindly offered their insight on the birth to West End journey of their hit show. Read on to find out more...
What drew you to the concept of Operation Mincemeat?
Felix: When we first heard the tale of it on the Stuff You Should Know podcast we were immediately struck, purely by the fact that this is the funniest thing that has ever happened in the course of human history. The fact that the story wasn’t more widely known was baffling to us. Every kind of element of it, the beautiful quintessential Englishness of it sort of mixed with the sheer silliness of it – it was just a wonderful thing that happened.
How was the creation process and what research did you do for the basis of the show?
Zoe: Long! We’ve been working on the show for 5 or 6 years now. We started by, as Felix said, we heard a podcast about it and from there we started researching, reading all about the story. I mean there’s a ton of stuff online about it, there’s articles about different characters and real life people I should say. Actually, Ewen Montagu, one of the guys in who created the operation, he in fact wrote a book called ‘The Man Who Never Was’ which was released in the 70s, and I think was his re-telling of the story. That was where a lot of the comedic tone that features in the musical comes from I think – as one of the creators, his joy in what they were doing and his sense of fun comes across in
the book and it obviously helped build that lead character, but also informed the telling of the rest of the story because it just is a really kind of fun romp at the same time as being about some people doing something really important.
We first debuted a couple of songs at a scratch night at the Lowry in Salford – one of which remains in the show which is really lovely. And from there we’ve basically gone to various performance runs – first at the New Diorama in 2019 to various runs at the Southwark Playhouse and finally to Riverside Studios last year, each time building and honing and adapting what we’ve already got as we’re desperately trying to finish this insanely complicated musical.
How did you prepare to fuse comedy with a historical event and how accurate of an account were you anticipating on giving?
Zoe: We’ve all come from a comedy background so everything that we’ve made as writers and musicians together has always had a comedic edge, so it never really was ever in doubt that it was going to be fun, it was going to be funny. It’s the first time that we’ve been dealing with stories of real people rather than a story that we’ve just created so learning that there’s kind of a degree of reverence there without it crashing the comedy was really important; making sure that we had a nod to the real people who were out there and involved in the story in a really difficult time but making sure that it didn’t change the fact that you’re here to see a really entertaining 2 hour show about a madcap spy story. So it is a balance.
We know that some of the family of the main characters have been to see the show, some have been several times. The family of Ewen Montagu have been and they love it. They love the portrayal of their, I mean I think grandfather, great great grandfather. Great great great grandfather. They love the portrayal of this guy that they knew and loved as this kind of fun loving mad genius who was having the time of his life while he was also doing something really important.
What impact does gender-bending the characters have, and how does this influence the way you interpreted them?
Zoe: We’ve always come from the background as performers and writers of gender blind casting – so casting the person who is just best to portray the role either comedically or seriously without really worrying about gender. We’re in a world of make believe so it seems stupid to be restricted by your gender for that. It just opens up a much bigger world in terms of the characters you can play.
For us, it was always going to be we were telling this story that is predominantly filled with men and we like putting women on stage so that was always going to happen, that some of the male roles were played by women and vice versa, and not in a drag performance way, just in a genuine realistic ‘these are people being these characters’ way. But also what it allows us to do, particularly having women playing these strong male parts, is allow us to kind of have a bit more of a comment on the male dominated establishment and these kind of empowered male figures at the top of the tree who are not always the most responsible. It allows us to comment on how masculinity is often performed. We just get to have a lot more fun with it in a way that if you put a guy in those roles, you wouldn’t be able to. But also from a performer perspective, you know women don’t get to those kind of fun roles a lot – particularly in musicals. You’re often restricted to playing the ingenue or the old bag and nowhere in between. So its really exciting for us to create roles in a musical that are different, that are strong, that are charismatic and dominating and hopefully lead the way for people to start thinking differently about gender and performance a little bit.
How was the task of generating and bringing the soundtrack into the mix (and is there any hope of an official cast recording)?
Felix: Well the beauty of musical theatre really is that in other mediums, if people are going to start bursting into song there needs to be a logical reason for it to happen. But when you’re on stage, good lord, you’ve just seen a bird! I’m going to sing about that bird. You know, you don’t need it. You just launch into it. That’s the kind of beauty of it.
Zoe: And our “I’ve seen a bird song” is one of the highlights of the whole show.
Felix: Oh God yes. Tweet, exclamation mark!
Zoe: The musical palette of the show is quite varied and broad and that comes from us always just looking for the best palette for whatever moment we’re writing the song for so its not really in one particular style. It's kind of a grab bag of everything that excites us although we’re almost always trying to get the excitement of ‘Hey Pachuco’ from The Mask film. It's got a huge variety – it's got
some contemporary stuff, it's got some 40s influences, it's got some jazz, it's got everything in between. Because our approach is what’s the best sound for this moment to help the audience connect with what’s going on, on stage.
Felix: It’s the same as the approach to casting. It's like let’s not put a huge restriction on ourselves,
let's make everything an option. All of a sudden all your restricted by are the resources by which you create the sound live. In terms of style, make the palette as enormous as possible.
Zoe: ...and in terms of cast album, we would love to have news. It is something we are just as keen to do as we know a lot of our audiences are keen to have. We promise as soon as we have any news, we will let people know. We’re also desperate to do it.
What are you most looking forward to about giving the show its much deserved West End run?
Zoe: Finishing it! We’re really excited to finish the show. Genuinely, its been 5 or 6 years in the making and we’ve got some re-tooling still to do. We’re going to be working on it in rehearsals, we’re going to be working on it in previews and we’re really excited to have audiences with us during those previews to kind of help us figure out the final frontier of Operation Mincemeat. It’s a comedy – everything depends on that connection with the audience and we need people there to gauge what we’re doing. So genuinely we are really excited to then actually, hopefully, draw a line under it and have finished our first musical.
But also its just really really exciting to be bringing it to the West End: to be bringing a fringe style show that is born from a small group of people in a room trying to figure out how to tell a giant story, telling a mad story, telling a funny story that is full of joy and excitement in what 5 people are able to do together on stage. I think the world is pretty bleak and we need stories like this in larger theatres and for larger audiences in the centre of London. We don’t have a big name, we don’t have a big songwriters back catalogue – it's all original and we’re champions of new work so it's really exciting for us. We’re feeling really humbled and very lucky to be given a chance to sit alongside so many amazing shows on the West End.
Without too many spoilers, which scene in the show do you each find the funniest, or your
favourite to perform?
Zoe: I think the opener of act 2 is always going to be one of my favourite things to do on stage. Without giving anything away, maybe you get a glimpse of the bad guys in World War 2, whoever they may be. We also do something stylistically and musically that’s quite unexpected and it's just a lot of fun that comes out of nowhere after people have had a wander about, a gin and tonic and an
ice cream. It really kind of shakes things up for act 2.
Felix, if you don’t say something funny that I do we’re going to have a problem.
Felix: Fleming, I think, is the funniest thing in the thing. Any Fleming business, bring it on.
How would you sum up Operation Mincemeat in a sentence?
Felix: The funniest story that’s ever taken place with banging tunes.
If you could play any other historical figure on stage, who would it be and why?
Zoe: That’s really hard! Ronnie Corbett.
Felix: Cat bin lady, that could be quite funny. What’s she doing now?
Zoe: I’ll go for Ronnie Corbett, I think I have the look.
Felix: I think that would be very funny. Vlad the Impaler, don’t know anything about him apart from
his favourite hobby.
What an absolute honour it is to have been able to talk with some of the ridiculously talented SpitLip team! Thank you ever so much to Zoe and Felix for your fantastic input - I can't wait to catch the show again (which was one of my favourites last year), and urge anyone else that can, to buy tickets and give it the love it deserves. Best wishes for the run!
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Additional thanks to Jasmine Ruparelia for coordinating this interview.