Interview: Operation Mincemeat's creators on breaking into the West End
Operation Mincemeat creators SpitLip speak to Culture Whisper about the show's West End ascension and why, as musical theatre sceptics, they decided to write one
It’s the fairytale story of a grassroots passion project transformed into a mainstream hit, except it isn’t, really; to call it such would suggest a heavy stroke of luck, when in reality the show’s four creators have spent the last five years honing, sharpening and bettering their material, while its five performers (three of whom are also among its creators) pour heart, soul and sweat into delivering some of the most high-octane and hilarious performances you’ll find on the London stage.
The company behind the show, SpitLip, is a collaboration between three members of Fringe outfit Kill the Beast and composer Felix Hagan. Culture Whisper spoke to three-quarters of the company – David Cumming, Zoe Roberts and Hagan (Natasha Hodgson was off sick) – about the show’s remarkable trajectory and making a musical that even people who ‘don’t like musicals’ seem to love…
We catch up with the company shortly before Operation Mincemeat’s official opening on Tuesday 9 May – by which point the show has already been running for almost six weeks. We ask: why the long preview period, especially given that the show has had several stints on stage already and built up a loyal fan base?
‘It’s given us time to polish the last five per cent…when we’re previewing the show, we get to tweak it and try new stuff,’ explains Roberts.
It’s also about scaling up, according to Cumming, and not just assuming what worked in smaller venues will work in the West End. ‘It started as a small, tiny show, which it still is at its heart,’ he explains. In the show, the five-strong cast shrug off jackets and throw on hats, each performing a primary character and several background figures in their playful reimagining of the lead-up to the mission. ‘Five people on stage convince you that you’ve seen this huge array of characters. It’s a really tricky balance to keep it small while adding that West End sparkle.’
They’re obviously doing something right: the show’s preview period has proven a sell-out success, leading to an extension of its West End run by a further six weeks.
Operation Mincemeat – A New Musical. From left to right: Jak Malone, Zoe Roberts, Natasha Hodgson, David Cumming and Claire-Marie Hall. Photo: Matt Crockett
‘Hopefully, the more bulletproof we make it, the longer it lasts,’ adds Cumming. While the WWII musical is unlikely to linger at the Fortune Theatre for as long as its predecessor The Woman in Black – which haunted the venue for an impressive 33 years – the appetite for it is showing no sign of abating.
‘The dream is for this to run and run and run,’ Cumming continues, adding that the hope is eventually to replace themselves with a new cast. ‘We’re itching to work on something new but our brains are so full of this,’ adds Roberts.
It’s hard to imagine the show without the presence of the stars who devised it. They’ve been making theatre together for well over a decade now. Fringe-festival regulars will recognise Roberts, Cumming and Hodgson as core members of Warwick University-formed theatre company Kill the Beast, who created surreal, macabre, darkly funny plays like The Boy Who Kicked Pigs (2012) and He Had Hairy Hands (2014).
‘We bonded over a love of dumb comedies,’ recalls Cumming. It was as students that they started devising comedy shows together. 'The aim was only ever really to make each other laugh…that’s where we learnt each other’s horrible, silly minds,’ he grins.
At the same time, Hodgson was in a band with Felix Hagan. ‘One day, she said “do you want to go and see my play?”, literally the words one dreads,’ Hagen admits, mischievously. ‘But I came along and watched [Kill the Beast’s first show, The Boy Who Kicked Pigs’] and couldn’t believe that a friend of mine had made something so undeniably brilliant and hilarious. Then I thought, well, I’m just going to sit back and wait for them to ask me to join them.’
They did, eventually, with Hagan composing songs for their third show Don’t Wake the Damp (2016). When Kill the Beast split, Hodgson, Cumming and Roberts officially teamed up with Hagan to form SpitLip.
Has Operation Mincemeat changed much since its inaugural run at the New Diorama back in 2019?
‘You’ve saved 45 minutes of your life!,’ laughs Cumming. ‘We like to think the skeleton of the show is the same…but there’s been a lot of tinkering with structure to manage those emotional twists and turns,’ Roberts adds. ‘And then sort of not doing a 27-minute song,’ she laughs, referring to the original version of show number 'Making a Man'.
‘Which no one wants to listen to,’ Cumming agrees, before adding more seriously: ‘Also the character arch: once we’d delved more into who these characters were and sat with them a bit longer, we realised a very small part of the actual story involved women at the time, so we wanted to beef up the roles of our female characters and tell their story,’ which is something they’ve doubled down on with show song 'All the Ladies'.
Operation Mincemeat is 90 per cent laughs, 10 per cent tears (you’ll want to have your hanky ready for sung-through letter Dear Bill), and one of the most impressive things about it is how seamlessly the cast shuttle the audience between the two and back again. While the mission itself is almost entirely played as a spoof, through backstories like that of MI5 secretary Hester Leggett, we're reminded of the pain the war caused, too.
‘As comedy writers, we were a bit reticent to delve into the sadder parts of the story, but over time we’ve got a bit braver, or softened, or gone through a pandemic, which was a brief glimpse into what it might be like to have [a forced separation from a loved one] happen to you. All these things allowed us to delve into more heartfelt parts of the story,’ says Cumming. ‘We’ve become braver at embracing wider moments of pathos than we were before,’ agrees Roberts.
Our interview time was running out, but one big question remained: how have they managed to make a musical that anecdotally appeals even to those who don’t like musical theatre?
‘I think by being people who don’t like musicals,’ chuckles Cumming, a little sheepishly. Roberts also struggled with them. ‘It wasn’t a genre I particularly cared for, she admits, citing the jarring effect of a character breaking into song and becoming an entirely different person as her chief peeve.
‘Our first year of working together was us doing impressions of typical musicals,’ laughs Hagan.
Through devising the show together – rather than working individually on book, music and lyrics, as was the formula for writing a traditional musical – Cumming says they’ve broken down the barriers that make the genre so restrictive. ‘It’s all massaged together so even though there’s four of us, we’re writing with one combined voice for all of it, which I think then smooths over the bad thing musicals do where someone bursts into song.’
Still, realising they wanted to make an actual musical was something they’ve all had to come to terms with, and in Cumming’s own words: ‘It’s the worst thing in the world to realise about yourself.’
Operation Mincemeat is running at the West End's Fortune Theatre from Wednesday 29 March – Saturday 19 August. Click here for more information and tickets.