Here’s the first of three shows we saw over the weekend. Of those, one I had very high hopes for, the next I was expecting to be ok and the third I was worried about because of iffy reviews. However, never trust other people’s reviews (and that includes my own) – because the show I thought I’d enjoy best I enjoyed least, and vice versa.
Firstly though, what a delight to be able to return to the Fortune Theatre after decades of its hosting The Woman in Black. Not that that wasn’t a good use of its facilities, but, I mean, 34 years? Come on!! I’d forgotten its charming intimacy, its lopsided central aisle, its surprisingly plain interior and its elegant, daring and mildly saucy safety curtain. Next year the theatre will celebrate its 100th birthday; may I be among the first to congratulate it on still looking so young.
Operation Mincemeat (the musical) is based on Operation Mincemeat (the wartime operation), which also gave rise to Operation Mincemeat (the film). One of the masterminds of the operation, Ewan Montagu, wrote an account of it as The Man Who Never Was, which led to the film, The Man Who Never Was. You would have thought that with all this history, dramatisation, adaptation and so forth that I would have heard about it. But neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had a clue about what to expect. And, on reflection, it would have been useful to have had some prior knowledge about the operation and what it entailed; may I suggest that a potted history about this 1943 deception ploy would have been a jolly useful thing to put in the programme.
David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts’ musical has been five years in the development, and has grown through a number of fringey productions to be quite the smash hit in the West End – and I can only applaud them for that achievement. However, despite its popularity, and with almost record-breaking numbers of extensions in a very short time, it clearly is very popular, I found it very hard to warm to or relate to this show. I really, really wanted to love it – but its charms just passed me by.
Three members of that creative team are also in the cast; and I can’t help but wonder if might be one of the problems. I constantly got a sense of self-indulgence with the show; a, dare I say it, smugness about its approach. A couple of the performancers scream Look at me, aren’t I funny through everything they do, and I confess the show largely got on my nerves. Imagine if MI5 had been taken over by the Monty Python team; not so much the Ministry of Silly Walks, but certainly the Ministry of Silly Voices. Lacking proper characterisations, this MI5 is staffed by pantomime caricatures instead, and every opportunity to go over-the-top is taken. Natasha Hodgson’s Montagu, for example, adopts a gruff, knowing voice as she/he kicks back her/his chair and growls at the audience who go mad with appreciation in response. David Cumming’s Cholmondeley is a wet-behind-the-ears silly arse straight out of Jeeves and Wooster.
Whilst it aspires to Hamilton levels of verbal dexterity, it sadly lacks any of that production’s audio clarity. I could tell that there was a lot of comical content in the lyrics, but the shouty freneticism of much of the delivery just left me frustrated at not getting more out of it. It needs more light and shade, more changes of pace, more moments of reflection and the chance for the audience to get their thoughts together. It’s also slightly off-putting when an audience is full of returning fans, who know the show intimately, and constantly tell the new people they’ve brought along isn’t it brilliant. The show is by far at its best in its few moments of quieter emotion; the voices of Jak Malone in the role of Hester and Clarie Marie Hall as Jean shine through. That said, the opening number in the second act, Das Übermensch, a stunning imagining of German Nazis performing a showstopper, is a hilarious highlight.
I think I simply have a different sense of humour from that required to enjoy this show, and I fully recognise that it’s me who’s missing out. My guess is that this show is going to continue at the Fortune for quite some time yet – maybe not a Woman in Black degree of longevity, but I’m sure the investors will be very happy indeed.
Production photos by Matt Crockett