Val chats to SpitLip the creators of Operation Mincemeat, a new British musical which premiered at the New Diorama Theatre in 2019. The show has since gone from strength to strength including sell out runs at Southwark Playhouse and Riverside Studios, critical acclaim, and now an upcoming West End run at the Fortune Theatre.
Val: If you all wanted to do a little bit of an introduction to all of you, just so that people who don’t actually know who you are can get to know you, how dare they? Right?
David Cumming: Well, we are collectively known as SpitLip, there are four of us in the company and we write musical theatre shows. Our debut production, Operation Mincemeat, is about to arrive at the Fortune Theatre in the West End. I am David Cumming, I am one of the writers and I’m also in the show, I play Charles Cholmondeley.
Tash Hodgson: I am Tash Hodgson. I’m also a writer and I’m in the show, playing you Ewen Montagu. And Dave, I like how the optimism of musical theatre shows there, really implying that we’re going to work together again, which I’m not sure we’ve agreed to actually. I’m planning a big feud with you guys.
Val: That will bring up a lot of PR.
TH: Sure, that’s true.
Zoë Roberts: I’m Zoë Roberts, I’m also one of the writers and play Johnny Bevan in the show
Felix Hagen: I’m Felix Hagen. Hello, and just writing music and all of this, and I’m going to feud you first.
TH: I’m going to feud you right back.
Val: Who wants to tell me a little bit about what Operation Mincemeat is about?
ZR: So Operation Mincemeat is the insane but true story of a madcap spy operation that happened during World War II, where the British forces used a dead body to help win us the war. By dressing him up as a pilot, lobbing him in the sea, floating him ashore in Spain with documents on his body, which tricked Hitler into moving a bunch of troops, which yeah, corpse equals allies win the war, basically, is the headline.
TH: That’s not a lyric that’s made it in.
FH: It’d save so much time.
Val: Because I love this story, can you tell me a little bit about how you decided to write a musical about corpses?
TH: So, step one, Hitler’s on the train. [laughs] So, yeah, me, Zoë, and Dave have been in a comedy troupe together for many years, and we’ve started putting musical songs into our shows because we couldn’t help ourselves. And when it became clear they needed to slap a bit more than they were currently doing, we got Felix involved. Felix and I were in a band together, a glam-punk spectacular called Felix Hagan and The Family.
So, yeah, we started just merging our juices, if you will, and you will, and yeah, I’m going there. So, we kind of decided to write a musical together because we thought, surely that will be the key to all financial success. It’ll take maybe one to two years. How long can a musical take to write? It’s easy. We started looking around for things to write about, and because we were sort of aware that commercial theatre is an incredibly difficult beast, we thought, we’d never done this before, let’s try and do another adaptation or a true story. It just kind of kicked us off and made it feel less scary. We were struggling to find anything and we kind of went back and forth, a few different ideas, I think Death Becomes Her, we kind of wondered if we could do that.
There were a few different ideas that were going around, and then I was on holiday with my family, complaining about this terrible life of being an artiste who can’t find their muse, and my veterinarian brother undid one of his headphones and was like, “I’m listening to a podcast that should be a musical”, and I was like, “Joe fair Joe, if only you understood how difficult it is to have an inspiration”. Anyway, I listened to it and it was absolutely incredible. It was a Stuff You Should Know podcast about Operation Mincemeat. I was incredibly resentful because he tends to be always right and it is a real key point of problem in my childhood. But I sent it to these guys saying, I’m so sorry, I think we may have to write a musical about World War II. Which none of them were impressed by. The crowd was tough, I have to say, and yeah, it was this insane caper filled with genuine, heart-yearning characters and a small team who were trying to do something big. A crazy coroner who was going off the rails, pilots landing, and then interrupting the plan halfway through, obviously Nazis invading, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. But it was this really tiny story that kind of threaded all these things together in a way that to us, felt really obviously hilarious. Also, it was dying for the adventure of a full musical theatre transformation, and so we went from there and a scant five or something years later, here we are.
Val: How has your journey to the West End been since you decided to ride it?
DC: Long. No, it’s been great. It’s been the first. It’s obviously the furthest one of our shows has ever made it in terms of like, moving up the echelons of Fringe to commercial theatre. It’s been a really interesting process as makers to work on numerous iterations of a show as it gets bigger and with an audience who feels such a connection to the work, that’s a very new thing for us. It’s quite humbling, and there are bits of the show which are more sentimental or touching or bringing out more heartfelt emotions which are quite new for us as writers, you just work in mainly just comedy and kind of being the ones in charge of that and guiding the ship as it goes along. But listening to the audience at the same time has been a really beautiful thing. And now we’re about to go onto the biggest stage/platform for the show that we’ve ever had and it doesn’t quite feel real, I think, for any of us quite yet.
ZR: Big trick.
DC: Yeah, but it’s certainly very exciting and it feels, well, I mean, it’s a dream come true, really.
ZR: It’s really nice that the show was kinda born at the New Diorama, which is obviously a really small, intimate space. It’s like 70 seats. So the first run we did was in front of this amazing sort of audience that just held us and was right there with us. And it’s a comedy, it’s really important to connect with that audience, and it’s a nice feeling as we’ve progressed to bigger and bigger venues, but actually, the Fortune is intimate in terms of West End venues. It’s about 400 seats, it’s kind of cosy and close and everybody is going to have an amazing seat for the action, nobody’s going to be watching tiny people hundreds of feet away, not being able to be there with us. Every beat you’re going to be able to see, you’re going to feel. And we’re going to have them with us because that’s such a big part of the show for us. So it felt really important to kind of retain that.
Val: Well, since you’re mentioning audiences, I’ve heard that you might have collected a group of people who might be kinda obsessed with the show along the way. Just rumours. Is there anything that might surprise, return viewers of the show?
TH: Where would we be without the ‘Mincefluencers’? That’s my question. Yeah. We are incredibly lucky to have amassed a brilliantly motley crew of people who think similarly to us and who have tried to champion this show and kind of get it, and genuinely have gotten it where we are now. We are overwhelmed every day by that crazy fact. But, yeah, I think in terms of the people who have seen it a lot and know what to look out for, all we can say, is that we are still working on it. I don’t think there’s going to be anything that everyone is kind of like, ‘holy sh*t’. But then you never know. It’s a month-long rehearsal period. We are known for trying stuff, chucking stuff out, putting stuff back in it.
ZR: Tash might not even be in it.
TH: I’m really on the edge, honestly.
ZR: She hasn’t committed.
TH: Yeah. Doctor Who is very interested, that’s all I can say at this stage.
DC: In playing Monty.
TH: Yeah. They just don’t want me on. They’re like, well, anyone, will be better than you, give up… All I can say is we’re still definitely trying to make it better, and we really hope that this is the final leg of that work. But everything we do is part of the journey of trying to make a show that makes everyone happy. It’s testament to all the kind of love and support that we’ve had. We just want to show that back by working as hard as we can to make it the best show it could be.
DC: Yeah. We’re tightening those screws, making sure everything works and is polished and that each song can bang and slap as much as it needs to. And, yeah, there will definitely be some new bits for people that have seen the show before.
TH: I think also because there’s work that we wanted to do at the Riverside that we couldn’t do because Dave obviously broke. So, yeah, things that we really wanted to realise fully in the last run, we felt like we didn’t quite have a chance to do that, and so this is the time to kind of address those demons and really polish everything to perfection.
Val: When I told people I’d be interviewing you guys, one question that I have been asked by multiple people is, is there going to be a cast recording?
TH: We love that
DC: There is no official news on that, but all we can say is that as SpitLip, we desire that as much, if not more than anyone else who wants it.
ZR: Many ways, though, we keep being told that you have to finish the show before you can record it
TH: Banging on about finishing the show.
DC: No news as yet is all we can say on that.
TH: But we’re making sure those tables, the engine is running, the cars in gear… and this metaphor is really doing well. But, yeah, we really want it to. We really want the show to exist and people want to listen to it wherever they are. And it’s not just us on the stage every night doing it. So rest assured, those feelings and desires have been heard and registered and we’re doing our absolute best to make them a reality.
Val: I will pass on the message. I do have a few more questions about the show, but since we’re kind of going in this direction, now that you’re achieving your mission of going to the West End, what are the next steps of SpitLip? Assuming you don’t all hate each other by the end of the run?
DC/ZR: That’s a big assumption.
DC: We will always want to make each other laugh, and we’ll always want to make work that does that for ourselves and for others.
ZR: Could we do that as accountants, though.
DC: Yeah, no. We’ve been so full on working on getting Mincemeat right for this shot. We want to shoot our best shot at this moment, we haven’t got another show that we are necessarily working on, but we definitely are chomping at the bit to get our teeth into something new, because we’ve been doing this, what, five years now? So there will be something once Tash has finished suing us, of course
TH: it could take a long time, Dave, all this could go away very quickly if you just acquiesce to my reasonable demand. You’re insisting on going through the court system.
DC: Just hand over the photos. You can’t have the kids.
TH: I think we feel strongly that this is our chance to, like, this is the Mincemeat time. This is the only time we’re going to get on Mincemeat and we would feel so annoyed at ourselves if we divided our time between this and something else at this stage. We owe it too much to the show and everyone who is around it, to kind of split our focus at this point. But once this is up, who knows?
Val: So my next question is, is there anything that I didn’t ask thus far that you wish I had? Anything you want to talk about?
TH: That’s a great question.
ZR: I think one thing that is probably worth mentioning is what we’re really proud, I guess, to be bringing to the West End is what we do with gender and casting. It’s something that we didn’t set out to try and do something radical in that way. But actually we have a cast where we have men playing female roles and women playing male roles and actually, particularly two female performers playing kind of strong male characters and a male lead and getting to like, stride around and stomp about and be funny and host a show and all of that stuff. It feels like it’s actually more and more we’ve done it. We’ve realised there aren’t really that many other opportunities, particularly in musical theatre, for women. There are quite a small kind of margin of roles that those performers usually get to play. So it actually feels really exciting to hopefully be creating those roles and creating that space for other performers where we start to go, like, the rules don’t really apply. Like, what are we doing? What do we do about gender in that way?
TH: There are so many amazingly talented female performers and they get to be the ingénue and Mrs. Lovett and not that much in between. It’s like women can be Billy Flynn. Women can host the show. They can be fun and ridiculous and dangerous and kind of dickheads, and hopefully this show will maybe, like, unlock a bit more for creators as well as audience members. There’s a huge untapped potential in the female performer market that we can celebrate and have a great time with.
DC: It’s interesting that we didn’t set out to do any of those things. And this is just kind of the way we’ve always worked. It’s whoever is best at the part or whoever most fits that role gets to play it. And I don’t think we quite realise how radical that actually is at the higher end in commercial theatre, that this just isn’t the thing that people do. And so it feels that if we can show that, actually shows that do that or want to do that, can still be successful, they can still rise to the top. That’s a really lovely thing to have passed on.
TH: Yeah. And it doesn’t feel preachy or like we’re trying to teach people anything. It’s just part of it. It’s just fun because that’s the best way to demonstrate anything to people, is just by going, yeah, but this is really cool and cool and fun. Like, why wouldn’t you want to do this?
Val: Yeah, that was definitely something that caught my attention when I first saw it at Southwark over a year ago. That was very surprising for me, having seen mostly West End shows before that. So that was really nice to see. Not just females playing strong lead male roles, but also seeing males playing softer roles that are not a man in a dress.
ZR: And it’s not drag. It’s not a heightened performance of gender. It’s just you happen to be playing a character that is a different gender to the one you identify as. That’s all it is, and that’s all it really needs to be in that space.
DC: Yeah. I’m watching a male presenting body or a man be, like, emotionally vulnerable and scared and soft and so rare that we don’t really ever see that side of things.
Val: My last question is, with the Operation Mincemeat movie out, why should people book a ticket to see the musical version of Operation Mincemeat instead?
ZR: The show is really fun. Yeah, the show is just a really fun night out. It’s a comedy, the movie isn’t a comedy as far as we’re aware. I think it’s quite a serious history – We’ve got songs!
DC: If you love the film, then why not come watch the hilarious musical version of the same thing? If you hate the film, then come see the better hilarious music version.
TH: And everyone knows Colin Firth can’t act, that’s been widely proven.
DC: Actually he meant to tell you there’s a small chance he might be fantastic.
ABOUT THE SHOW
Operation Mincemeat previews start on the 29th March, with the 8 week run from 9th May-8th July 2023 at the Fortune Theatre. Official Box Office OperationMincemeat.com
Tickets for all previews are £35.