We recently sat down for an interview with actress Claire-Marie Hall as she takes on her principal role as Jean Leslie in the highly anticipated West End transfer of the musical Operation Mincemeat.
Running at the Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden, the show has already received rave reviews from major publications including Variety, The Stage, The Observer, and The Independent.
With previews in May, the musical has been described as a masterclass of macabre musical comedy and a glittering Second World War musical that is funnier than Hamilton.
The production is created by SPITLIP and is a five-hander, with each actor taking on several roles throughout the performance, in addition to their principal role. The musical is a fast-paced, hilarious, and unbelievable true story of the twisted secret mission that won us World War II. It’s a Singin’ in the Rain meets Strangers on a Train kind of show, with a Noel Coward meets Noel Fielding vibe.
Claire-Marie Hall has an impressive portfolio of work that includes her role as Cosette in the musical Les Misérables, Gabriella Montez in High School Musical Live on Stage, Tuptim in The King And I, and was the understudy to the principal role of Dea and was also part of the cast in other roles in the critically acclaimed West End transfer of the musical The Grinning Man.
With her undeniable musical talent, Claire-Marie Hall is sure to deliver a captivating performance that will leave audiences on the edge of their seats.
How did you first become involved with the musical Operation Mincemeat?
I auditioned for the show back in late 2019. They’d completed an extremely successful run that Summer at the New Diorama and we’re looking for a new fifth cast member to join the cast for a ten-show run at Southwark Playhouse.
After hearing incredible things about the previous production, I actually saw the casting on social media and immediately applied. I remember we had to perform a rap for the initial audition and I did Goldie Lookin Chain’s ‘Newport State Of Mind’ which I don’t think they were expecting!
Could you describe your character Jean Leslie and what you enjoy about playing her?
As the show is based on a true story, Jean Leslie did exist and really was a part of the military operation. She’s probably most recognised as the fake fiancé in the photo that ‘Bill’ (a fictional pilot created by the M15 team to fool the Nazi Party) carried with him.
The whole premise of the somewhat crazy operation was to dress up a corpse as a drowned British pilot, plant him with ‘secret’ documentation and float him out to sea where he would hopefully eventually end up in the hands of the Nazis, all in a bid to trick Hitler into moving his troops from Sardinia to Sicily, leaving Sardinia open for the Allied Forces to advance into.
In our version, Jean is portrayed as one of the core team; an enthusiastic, bright and feminist young woman who is happily taking advantage of the opportunities suddenly available to women at the time to advance her career. As the show has evolved over the years, so has the character.
One of the things I love playing about her is the fact she readily says what she thinks, which is very different to myself. It’s one of the qualities that help her land her place on the team but is also her downfall.
Operation Mincemeat has received rave reviews from various publications, how does it feel to be part of such a successful production?
I feel extremely lucky. When I first joined the show, it was this hidden gem on the London theatre scene, playing a limited number of shows to small audiences. As word got out and the buzz grew, the show has become bigger and bigger.
Now it’s a fully-fledged West End production smack bang in Covent Garden with flashy big yellow signs out front and an actual Sony-produced cast album on the way. It’s mad if you actually think about it! Not many people get to be part of that kind of journey in the theatre world.
Could you tell us about the rehearsal process for the show and how it compared to previous productions you have been a part of?
It’s been very different to most of the other musical theatre productions that I’ve been part of. Quite a few of the bigger productions I’ve worked on before had a set script and score, some even had set blocking (a character’s path around the stage in line with the script), so rehearsals were mainly based around learning a pre-determined track.
With Operation Mincemeat, the script and score have evolved a lot over time, as the story and ultimately the characters become fine-tuned. As the majority of the show creators (Spitlip-namely Natasha Hodgson, Zoe Roberts, David Cumming and Felix Hagan) act in the cast too, this can even be on a show-to-show basis during preview season as we try and test certain material or direction out on a live audience to gauge reaction. There’s also a big divisive element that takes place in the rehearsal room, so we as actors get to try things out and help create.
How would you describe the music and score of Operation Mincemeat?
Unlike the major quantity of musicals, Operation Mincemeat doesn’t sit in one genre. You go from girl-band pop to rap, to your traditional musical ballads to 40’s jazz, sometimes all in one number!
Each style of the song is based on the character singing it and what is happening in the story. It’s a magical musical hotchpotch – there’s something in there for everyone.
You have played a variety of roles in different musicals, which has been your favourite character to play and why?
I’ve been really fortunate with jobs, especially in terms of musicals with recognisable names like Les Miserables, The King and I, High School Musical etc. However one of my favourite roles was actually for a small fringe play I did at Soho Theatre called The Colours.
It was a beautiful play crafted together from conversations with patients in a Welsh seaside hospice, their families and the professionals that worked there. We listened to real interviews via headphones during the play and then repeated the words aloud in real-time as the characters, a method called recorded delivery.
My character was this amazing woman called Erica who was in a battle with cancer but refused to let it take away her optimism about life. There’s actually a gorgeous audio version of the play you can listen to as part of a podcast series called ‘The Colours Of Loss’.
How do you prepare for a performance, both physically and mentally?
We do a cast physical and vocal warm-up every day before the show which gets the blood pumping and gets us in the right mindset. It’s also a lovely opportunity to briefly catch up with everyone before the show, especially the understudies who we don’t get to see on stage. A lot of other people also have personal warm-ups or pre-performance rituals, but the group warm-up does the trick for me really.
Can you share with us any funny or memorable moments from rehearsals or performances of Operation Mincemeat?
There are too many to list! One of the most enjoyable things about the show is that if things do go wrong, it’s the sort of show where 9 times out of 10 you can embrace the mistake and make it into part of the fun.
There are some incredible ad-libbers in the cast. One funny moment that does pop to mind was during our run at Riverside Studios, someone in the audience left to find the loo in the final number but somehow got confused and ended up walking onto the stage and then into the wing where the band were playing…it was so surreal.
There’s no obvious exit there either so the poor bloke then had to come back out on stage with us to go the correct pathway into the auditorium. Both the cast and audience are in hysterics at this point because we’re all absolutely baffled as to what is going on and why there’s suddenly a sixth member of the cast. When he did eventually leave, the next scripted line was actually ‘You mean who was he?’ – talk about irony!
The show is set during World War II, what kind of research did you do to prepare for the role and setting?
In the early days, to start with I read Ben Macintyre’s great book ‘Operation Mincemeat’, which details the operation in this fab wry tone and gives a good outline of the people involved. That sort of gave me a baseline for some of the characters I play (we each multi-role a variety of parts across ages and genders).
The rest was all character work. Building character backgrounds, giving them each unique physical qualities that differentiate them and where these qualities might have come from, basically making them into real people with distinct personalities and backstories.
You have worked in both theatre and television, do you have a preference for one medium over the other and why?
I haven’t done a huge deal of television, and it’s definitely not something that I’d say no to doing more of, but I think theatre will always be where I am most comfortable. There’s something about telling a story and going on a journey with a character each night, rather than having to jump in cold to do a scene that doesn’t usually follow the story timeline.
Plus the adrenaline rush of performing in front of a live audience and the discipline/excitement of finding different ways to play things each night…I just genuinely love my job.
Could you talk about your experience touring with the National Theatre’s production of South Pacific?
South Pacific was actually the first professional job I ever did back when I was something like eleven years old. I didn’t tour with the NT production but played the role of Ngana for the Cardiff leg of the tour.
There were two kids in the show, myself and a little boy playing my younger brother, and I remember we had two, maybe three scenes throughout the show. We had to talk and sing in French which they taught us phonetically (thankfully I don’t think we had that much to say)!
It’s also where I found out I needed glasses as in rehearsals the director kept pointing out a spot in the auditorium where we needed to pretend to see a bird at some point, and I had absolutely no idea what he was pointing at so I never got it right (turns out I’ve got pretty poor vision).
Do you have any upcoming projects or roles that you are excited about?
I’m part of a great dark comedy web series called ‘Murder For Dummies’ which is coming out soon. It’s by a comedy troupe called Casual Violence and is a very fun and very silly true crime-esque mockumentary.
Apart from that, we’re currently still in previews for Mincemeat which means we’re in rehearsing in the daytime as well as performing the show in the evenings so that’s pretty much my life at the moment!
How do you see the future of musical theatre evolving in the coming years?
Hard question. We’re in a time where people are obviously thinking hard about how they want to spend their disposable income and theatre producers are being wary about taking risks. Because of that, I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen the end of the big jukebox era of musical theatre.
However, saying that, this year most of the ‘New Musical’ category nominations were new British productions which was so exciting to see. Rather than predict, I’ll say what I’d love to happen which is for other producers, theatres and also audiences to follow suit and champion up-and-coming, homegrown talent as well as the glitzy, big American shows or adaptations of well-known titles/jukebox productions. There’s a wealth of untapped creative talent out there, they just need the backing and opportunity.
What advice would you give to aspiring actors and performers?
Work hard and keep pushing ahead, even when you think the odds are against you. I left the acting industry for a few years and came back thinking it would be easy. It definitely was not. I’ve worked harder and learnt so much more in the last few years than I ever did before I left – getting new repertoire under my belt, building on my acting and singing technique, establishing new contacts etc.
Each recent little career aspiration I’ve managed to tick off my list, I’ve allowed myself to feel proud of myself because I’ve really grafted for it. Of course, luck does still come into it in terms of jobs, but if you are indeed fortunate enough to have an amazing opportunity turn up on your doorstep and you’re not prepared for it, that’s on your own head.
How has your journey as an actress led you to where you are today, and what lessons have you learned along the way?
Probably the same answer as the one above. When I finished my training, I was fortunate enough to land some impressive jobs at a young age. When I re-entered the industry a few years down the line, there was less opportunity as well as the fact I had to re-establish myself.
It’s been a lot of determination, self-belief (aided by a very supportive partner and close friends) and just a huge willingness to learn, which looking back is something I perhaps didn’t have as much of before, that has really helped in terms of my own personal career path these past few years.
Images: Charlotte Harwood