By Claire Bueno
When Claire-Marie Hall was originally cast to play the role of Jean Leslie in Operation Mincemeat she had no idea it would win the hearts of audiences and would be catapulted from fringe theatre to the prestigious West End. The premise of this true story is riveting. The year is 1943 and we’re losing World War II. Could a crackpot idea of dressing up a stolen corpse really fool Hitler and win us the war and our freedom? Well history speaks for itself.
Claire has had an illustrious career on stage including the National Theatre’s touring production of South Pacific, Les Misérables, High School Musical Live on Stage, The King And I and The Grinning Man. So, when the opportunity arose to interview Claire about the show garnering five star reviews, I felt that it was me that was on to a winner!
You must very excited about Operation Mincemeat?
I am! This West End run was an absolute dream when I first came on board with the show around three and a half years ago. When I first joined, the show was on its second run and was playing ten shows in Southwark Playhouse’s ‘The Little’. Now we’re in the centre of Theatreland with posters everywhere and merchandise and a Sony produced cast album…it just doesn’t seem real!
Remarkably this is based on an extraordinary true story can you tell us a little more about it?
So, the show is based on the actual WW2 ‘Operation Mincemeat’ military operation. In order for the Allied Forces to move into Nazi-occupied Sicily with the lowest number of casualties as possible, M15 needed to come up with a strategy to fool the Nazi Party to move their troops away from the vicinity. The tactic they decided upon was to use a male corpse, disguise him as a British pilot carrying ‘secret documents’ detailing a false Allied invasion of Sardinia and then plant him in the sea near Spain making it look as if he had drowned. This was all in hope that the Spanish would find him, pass the documents along to Germany, Hitler would believe the Allied Forces wanted to invade Sardinia instead of Sicily and vacate the area accordingly. It sounds mad but it actually happened and even more insane, actually worked!
What for you are the key components that makes it an ideal story to adapt into a musical?
I know the writers Spitlip (Natasha Hodgson, Zoe Roberts, David Cumming and Felix Hagan - three of which also are in the cast) wanted to write a musical comedy and jumped at the particular subject matter mainly because of how bonkers the whole story and operation sounded. In amongst the madness however, there was also a lot of opportunity for heartfelt moments especially considering this was a mission that obviously meant so much to all involved and to Britain as a whole as it helped us win the war. Spitlip wanted to use a range of musical genres that were dependent on the storyline or character, rather than settling on just one particular genre which is what most musicals do. There is so much opportunity for that in this story as there’s so many different elements to it.
You’re playing the part of Jean Leslie can you tell us more about her and the importance of her role to the effort?
In real life, Jean was an M15 secretary who was part of the operation and is probably most known as the real woman behind the ‘dead pilot’s’ fake fiancé Pam. To make the enemy fully believe the rouse, the M15 team concocted a whole back story for the imaginary pilot, whom they named William Martin, and planted fake documents including a letter from his crafted fiancé and a photograph of her (which was actually a photo of Jean). In the musical version, she’s this feisty, bright young woman who is determined to take advantage of the career opportunities suddenly available to women at the time and manages to wangle her way into the core team.
This is based on a true story, but obviously has been adapted for the stage so there has to be some artistic licence applied, but did you go on your own exploration into the story and the part your character (s) played?
Yes, I really enjoyed researching into the story and into Jean when I got the part as the whole mission and team involved are genuinely so interesting. There were certain qualities that Jean possessed, for example she was said to be very enthusiastic and hardworking, that I used to form the basis of her and her physicality. But then on the other hand, there are smaller characters crafted into the story that are purely fictional. For example, at one point I play Steve, an invented helper to Frances Haselden, the real-life British Vice-Consul in Spain at the time. Back when I first started, Steve only had a few lines and I enjoyed making him completely what I wanted him to be. The really fun thing is that Spitlip have made his character bigger since then, so I’ve got to build on him more and more throughout this process.
For every actor, serving the story and portraying the role authentically is paramount, but is there additional responsibility when the character you play did existed in real life?
Yes completely. I obviously have complete respect for Jean and the operation that inevitably saved so many lives, so of course you don’t want to portray her in a way that her or her descendants wouldn’t be keen upon. The lovely thing with this show is that we have been privileged to meet some of the families of the people we are portraying, and they are so behind the show. I know for us as a cast and for the writers, it means the world.
Some of your cast members wrote the musical as well as appearing in the production, how has that helped with the collaboration?
It’s quite unique in that respect and has really helped, especially in regards to the comedy. As the writers are in it, we’ve been able to try out different lines and gags over time, gauge audience response and tailor accordingly. It’s probably a big reason why the show has become so polished as the writers are always there to experience the audience reaction first hand. Also, the show itself is this huge undertaking for the actors involved as each of us play a multitude of characters across age and gender and hardly ever leave the stage for the full two and half hours. I honestly think if the writers weren’t in it themselves proving it can be done, people would be sceptical that it was actually possible to do on a daily basis.
The beauty of stage is as an actor you follow the chronology of the story as opposed to screen acting, which is shot discontinuously, but you are also playing multiple roles. How does one prepare for this?
The same as you would for any part really, just there’s more than one role to have fun creating! Some of the characters in the show are more fleshed out than others as the audience meets some of them for literal seconds never to see them again. With that in mind, there is a necessity in this particular show to make each character distinguishably different from each other as a lot of the time, there’s only a quick hat or a jacket change to help the audience tell them apart. However, overall, it’s exploring each character’s background, their personalities, their relationships to the people around them etc and then translating this across to their physicality, how they react to others on stage, their habits, their accent, their natural body rhythm and so on.
What so far has been most rewarding about being a part of Operation Mincemeat?
Being in the unique position of watching a small show you are in grow and become more and more successful and loved. In one week, our posters are suddenly all around central London, we’ve celebrated our official opening with an extremely extravagant gala party, amassed a load of really complimentary reviews and a couple of days ago our original cast recording dropped. All of this from what started out a ‘tiny fringe show’ with next to no budget, marketing, costumes or set. And all of what has happened since then is because people genuinely loved the show and kept encouraging others to watch. To be part of something that people are so behind and on side within that way is incredibly special.
A New Musical’s extended run is until 19th August 2023 at the West End’s Fortune Theatre. More info and tickets at the Official Box Office OperationMincemeat.com
Photographer: Charlotte Harwood | Production Stills: Matt Crockett
With special thanks to JadeEast PR