“I spy a hit.” So said our reviewer Tim Bano last May when he had the (five-star) pleasure of seeing the seriously smart and ridiculously enjoyable Operation Mincemeat.
The 2019 musical, based on the preposterous – yet totally true – Second World War intelligence operation from 1943, involved everything from a stolen corpse masquerading as an upstanding RAF pilot, a clandestine submarine mission and a briefcase full of fake top-secret information about allied army manoeuvres, to a dodgy, all-singing-and-dancing celebrity pathologist.
The creative team of SpitLip – David Cumming, composer Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts – is far from the first group of people to see the potential of the caper. Even before author and historian Ben Macintyre wrote his book and subsequent BBC documentary about the escapade, there was the 1956 British movie The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Another, with a glamorous cast headed by Colin Firth alongside Mark Gatiss, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Paul Ritter, Simon Russell Beale and Penelope Wilton, is currently shooting with John ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ Madden at the helm.
I’m not privy to the latter’s script but I‘m guessing it won’t rival SplitLip’s snappy production number at the top of the second act which – like greats The Sound of Music, Cabaret and The Producers – features musical-theatre Nazis. Here, they’re found knocking out the uniformed toe-tapper with the delicious line: “Step to the left / Jump to the far right.”
Since the surprise hit born in London’s 80-seat New Diorama netted the company The Stage Debut Award for best composer/lyricist (against stiff opposition including the National’s Hadestown) as well as nominations for everything from a Knight of Illumination award for Sherry Coenen’s lighting to numerous Offies and best ensemble in a new production of a play or musical at the upcoming Broadway World Awards, SplitLip might have been forgiven for resting on its laurels.
But no. The team has been working on the show as well as reprising it at the enterprising Southwark Playhouse where it has just completed another a sell-out run. If you missed it, fret not: it’s returning there in May. But after that, where can it go?
The problem for Operation Mincemeat is that alongside the rare shrewdness of its writing – like Hamilton, it thrillingly understands when something needs to be spoken, rapped or sung – many of its pleasures derive from the wit with which it makes musical comedy mountains out of budgetary molehills.
Watching the cast leap in and out of multiple roles – often mid-scene via the tiniest of comedy costume changes – fires the delight of watching it. A grand-scale, fully cast production would lose that.
But where in London can tiny dynamite like this go to have anything approaching a commercial life? Both the Other Palace (312 seats) and Trafalgar Studios 1 (380) have inhospitable stage spaces and vertiginously raked auditoriums in which few shows look or feel comfortable, and most other mid-scale venues such as the National’s Dorfman rarely take in outside work.
As for smaller West End houses like the 479-seat Duchess or 588-seat Criterion, even if they weren’t booked for the foreseeable future by The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, the SOLT costs and consequent ticket prices are prohibitive.
There had been talk for years about rebuilding Collins’ Music Hall on Islington Green as a mid-scale transfer venue, initially under the auspices of Sally Greene. But a branch of Waterstones eventually opened on the site. However, the shell of a theatre was built beneath it but plans to complete and run it have been mired in litigation ever since, dashing the hopes of all manner of mid-scale companies who were on board with it as a receiving house for middle-scale theatre.
That too was the principle behind Cameron Mackintosh’s initial idea for London’s Sondheim Theatre. Now on Shaftesbury Avenue, it was to have been a 450-seat studio theatre on the site of the Ambassadors.
“So much of Stephen’s more recent work has been born in spaces like that,“ Mackintosh told me. “Many of the people his work has inspired have come out of places like that. It was to have been a custom-built receiving house for all those smaller theatres around the country. All their artistic directors applauded it and had input into it.”
The size allowed for 10 to 12-week runs with a more-than-decent rate of pay for cast and crew. But when owner Stephen Waley-Cohen decided to accept a higher bid, £4 million of Mackintosh’s money, and five years of designing and obtaining planning permission, went down the drain. London is awash with new theatre builds. If only some of them filled this obvious gap.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict