Review: Operation Mincemeat and the Case for Why Small Shows Need Small Theaters

A new musical comedy about World War II doesn’t always hit the mark, but when it does, it’s pretty special.

Operation Mincemeat left to right is Claire Marie Hall Zoe Roberts, David Cumming, Natasha Hodgson and Jak Malone. Credit is Matt Crockett
Claire-Marie Hall, Zoë Roberts, David Cumming, Natasha Hodgson, and Jak Malone in Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre in London.
(© Matt Crockett)

The Fortune Theatre in London is fairly nondescript. Dwarfed by the massive Drury Lane looming across the street, its walls are beige, the seats are close, and its men’s lavatory is so cramped you need to duck so your head doesn’t go through the ceiling as you relieve yourself. It’s old and creaky, and despite it all, at 432 seats, it’s a jewel box for a very particular kind of show that would be lost in a venue with even 68 more chairs.

That ideal show used to be The Woman in Black, which ended there in 2023 after several decades. The newest tenant, also ideal, is Operation Mincemeat, an unapologetically goofy spoof of a real World War II deception maneuver. The show proudly boasts 64 five-star reviews. I don’t know if I would give it five — I appreciated it more than I enjoyed it — but this new musical comedy is an undeniable crowd-pleaser, and its creative decisions are mostly thoughtful. It’s hard not to marvel at a group of performers skilled enough to thoroughly commit to the silliness while also managing to punch you in the gut with emotion, and there’s something even more admirable about how fully in control, even if they haven’t quite grasped the full scope of their show’s limitations.

Written by the musical-comedy troupe SplitLip (made up of David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson, and Zoë Roberts, three of whom are also part of the cast), Operation Mincemeat (not to be confused with the Colin Firth movie about the same mission) follows a group of British intelligence officers as they hatch a plan to deceive the Germans about the Allied landing at Sicily.

Hester Leggatt Plaque Unveiling
The Fortune Theatre
(image provided by Avalon)

The deceptive mission involved dressing the corpse of a Welsh vagrant in the clothes of an officer, giving him official-looking paperwork stating that the Allies were going to take Greece and Sardinia, and dropping it off the coast of neutral Spain. This allowed the Spanish to find it and provide the documents to Germany, which would then shift the location of its troops accordingly. The central figures in the mission are Charles Cholmondeley (Cumming), socially unskilled and deeply in love with newts, and Ewen Montague (Hodgson), the swaggering bureaucrat who sells the mission to their commanding officer (Roberts).

Each actor plays multiple roles — Roberts, for instance, is not only the CO, but also Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming — a doddering soldier in a black tux (Ben Stones did the business attire costumes and surprisingly versatile set) who’s working on a novel about a suave British secret agent who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred. Jak Malone is particularly impressive as he switches back and forth between the Vincent Price-like coroner who provides the agents with their cadaver, and Hester Leggett, the fastidious head of the M15 secretarial pool who provides a fake love letter for their fictional Allied pilot to carry. Malone just about steals the show with the aching, grief-stricken “Dear Bill,” truly one of the most heartbreaking musical-theater ballads I’ve heard in a long time. Malone and Claire-Marie Hall also have a rueful number called “Useful,” about how the typists are still important even if the men get all the credit.

“Dear Bill” is the sort of song Operation Mincemeat could use more of — the goofiness of the whole thing is all well and good, but Robert Hastie’s staging is crying out for more sincerity. The second act opener, tuneless song that finds a boyband of Nazi soldiers singing an EDM number about ridding Germany of vermin, is especially misguided, even in its ironic context (The Producers this isn’t). And at nearly two hours and 30 minutes, the show stretches long past its welcome, with a series of different buttons that could serve as a proper ending. Killing a couple of darlings to get it shorter would only benefit the text, with its irreverent and poignant lyrics, fun music, and genuinely interesting storyline.

With such good word of mouth, there’s no doubt that a New York run is hoped for, but the wrong space would totally kill the vibe. The Fortune Theatre is perfect for it, but there aren’t many Fortunes in New York City: Operation Mincemeat is a little show that can, and it does because of how small and nimble it is. Longer and bigger aren’t always better — and I hope and I hope they take that into consideration when they fly across the pond.

Operation Mincemeat left to right is David Cumming, Claire Marie Hall, Natasha Hodgson, Zoe Roberts and Jak Malone. Credit Matt Crockett
David Cumming, Claire-Marie Hall, Natasha Hodgson, Zoë Roberts, and Jak Malone in Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre in London.
(© Matt Crockett)