BORN TO LEAD..
This is a joy, quirky and full-hearted, musically adroit and fast-moving and witty. Moreover, I suspect its self-mocking variety-show humour would be more to the taste of the protagonists in the events it retells than any pious heroics. It is the true story of how ,in 1943 ,M15 spoofed the Germans into defending Sardinia rather than the real invasion target, Sicily. A submarine planted the corpse of an unknown tramp, dressed as a crashed pilot with a carefully curated fictional identity, to wash up on the Spanish coast with a briefcase of fake plans. As one planner says in this show “Disgusting, bizarre, borderline psychopathic”, but it worked, and saved thousands of lives.
Forget the terrible recent film with Colin Firth, taming a great wartime story into rom-com cheesiness. Perhaps remember the 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was, based on the book by Lt.Cmdr Ewen Montagu of British naval intelligence. He was part of it, and is played here with wicked bravado by Natasha Hodgson, defying the caution of Zoe Roberts as the Colonel, encouraging the nervous geeky scientist Charlie (David Cumming). Hogson, Cumming, and Roberts are – with the musician Felix Hagan – the company SplitLip, creators of the entire show. Those who join them or alternate are fully in the fast-moving idiom they have created. It is a breath of fresh air to find this spirit in a world where more expensive, anxiously spectacular musicals too often turn out far, far duller.
So its arrival in the West End is something to celebrate for many reasons. Because like the finest comedy down the years it was born of four friends and still has the empathetic, ironic mutual understanding which that entails. Because it emerged from the fringe, was believed in by the adventurous New Diorama and Southwark Playhouse;. Because her up West, with snazzier production values and a coup-de-theatre finale set, it has not been tamed and smoothed and bullied out of its joyful student-revue atmosphere.
It is funny, but with the confidence to be moving and humane as well. It joyfully guys the stiff-lipped officer-class men (three of the five onstage are women) with the big opening number “Born to Lead”, and faux-Etonian mottos “Never Trust the Servants, and Horses Can’t Inherit”. The song “Making a Man”, while they design the fictional pilot Bill reminds us how WW2 films and plays curated ideas of that kind of hero. It catches in comedy both the nervousness of Charles Cholmondely in the face of the medalled officers, and the difficulty Ewen and Ian Fleming and the rest had in persuading their bosses – “it’s not half-arsed! It’s whole-arsed! If not over-arsed!”. The pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury , advising on the corpse, is a top-hatted magician who keeps appearing unnervingly from the cleverly simple backdrop; Jak Malone is constantly funny, but also never more when playing a prim Moneypenny leading the female workforce (there’s a fine number, “Useful” in the second half in which the women of 1943 know it isn’t them who’ll get the medals).
But his secretarial role is one of the deepest joys: character comedy doesn’t come much lovelier than a balding chap in a rumpled grey shirt channelling with deadly accuracy a middle aged government lady-clerk of the 1940s. Nor does the humanity and respect show more movingly than in his unforgettable moment towards the end of the first half. A fake love letter has to be written from the fictitious pilot’s fictitious girlfriend, to nestle in his wallet, and it isn’t the youngsters who can write it . It’s her, the frumpy survivor of the last war’s losses, and the song is the most heartbreakingly , deliberately workaday and restrained of wartime love letters. Because as she says, “anything that gives any of those boys a fighting chance”…Then suddenly we are on the docks – sharp fast work with props and set all the way through, scenes flash by – and the cast have become submarine crew singing deep and sailorlike, plain and serious again, leaving the bright patter songs and clever rhymes alone for a moment. Then a nightclub burlesque where the team try to relax is intercut with the sub crew , horrifiedly obedient, taking off their hats to send the body to its destiny.
It is those switches to seriousness alongside the gaiety which, both two years ago in the barer Southwark production and in this one, marked for me the quality of the piece. Of course there is triumph, and a rousing finale with sudden unexpected tech, but it fades to acknowledge , beautifully, the fact that fifty years later the anonymous dead tramp was given his name. Only last month in Huelva in Spain the headstone erected to him was marked with a memorial fully acknowledging his strange, posthumous fictional service: “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM”.
www.thefortunetheatre.com to 19 August