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From Six to Operation Mincemeat – how cool indie musicals are sweeping the West End

 (ES)
(ES)

Around the West End, a different tune is being sung. Among the long runners, Disney shows, film adaptations, jukebox sing-alongs and star vehicles, a different sort of musical is making a mark, with the rise of younger, fresher fringey British shows – written and performed by exciting young talent, and covering all sorts of subjects from podcasters to Second World War espionage with great brio. And audiences love it.

From Six to Operation Mincemeat, from Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York) to Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder!, these are original shows with no marquee stars and small, unknown casts, yet have organically built huge followings on journeys that have often included runs at the fringe or regional theatre on their way into the West End.

Critics and audiences are taking notice, as are awards judges. This month Operation Mincemeat, a musical about an extraordinary true-life mission masterminded by British intelligence in the Second World War, landed six Olivier Award nominations.

The show started at the New Diorama, a tiny venue with 80 seats, in 2019 and following runs at the Southwark Playhouse and the Riverside Studios, made it to the West End’s Fortune Theatre last year – the venue where Woman in Black had played for more than three decades.

“It felt very exciting,” says Natasha Hodgson, one of the show’s creators and stars – and who happens to be up against Nicole Scherzinger at the Oliviers in the category of Best Actress in a Musical. “The West End was a ridiculous step, but it was still the thing we do. We go on stage together; we make silly jokes and do our silly songs.”

Mincemeat – which takes a serious story and turns it into a riotous comedy shot through with catchy tunes, though never making light of the human cost of the war – caught audiences by surprise and became a word-of-mouth sensation. “This show wears its fringe credentials on its sleeve and as the audience you do have to buy into coming along with us,” Hodgson says. And they have, many of them repeatedly.

From left: Claire-Marie Hall, Zoe Roberts, David Cumming, Natasha Hodgson and Jak Malone in Operation Mincemeat (Matt Crockett)
From left: Claire-Marie Hall, Zoe Roberts, David Cumming, Natasha Hodgson and Jak Malone in Operation Mincemeat (Matt Crockett)

It has extended eight times already and has built up a devoted army of fans, dubbed ‘Mincefluencers’. Indeed, it was the Mincefluencers who dug through reams of archives to discover the real identity of one of the principal characters, thought lost to history. There is now a permanent plaque dedicated to this war hero, Hester Leggatt, at the theatre.

Hodgson is delighted that more unusual stories are finding audiences in the West End, “It really is so exciting to be part of a movement of new fresh stuff. I hope new writers can now see it isn’t a hopeless gulf to try and jump over,” she says.

“It’s easy to think with musicals that for the audience to be happy it has to be enormous and have so much money spent on it. What’s really lovely about this new trend is that it puts faith in the audience to say, ‘We can show you a great story, sing you great songs and tell jokes and produce something believable.’ Then audiences will love it and will go with you.”

Though she adds that these shows are complimentary to the big West End beasts, from Mamma Mia! to Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables. “You need both ends of the spectrum. The big guys are keeping the West End running and they’re a gateway to people coming to the theatre.”

Producer Jamie Wilson, whose shows include Two Strangers, as well as Live Aid musical Just for One Day at the Old Vic and many others, says “I think there’s never been a better time for the original musical. In the last 10 years we’ve developed a musicals community that New York had for much longer, but we’ve really invested in that community and they’ve become stronger.”

He adds, “London is buzzing with musicals. It’s exciting, it’s a brilliant time to be working in theatre in the West End.”

Bronté Barbé and Rebekah Hinds in Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder! (MIHAELA BODLOVIC)
Bronté Barbé and Rebekah Hinds in Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder! (MIHAELA BODLOVIC)

Francesca Moody, the original producer of Fleabag at the Edinburgh Fringe and whose new show, Kathy and Stella, opens in the West End soon, after a successful run at Edinburgh and on tour, agrees that it’s a “real moment” for these indie musicals.

“There is a generation shift happening in the West End,” she continues. There are younger producers – many of whom are women – and “because of that there’s an energy around the type of shows going into the West End, the stories we’re telling, the diversity of the stories.”

She adds, “In my mind, the West End will only survive and thrive if we energise it in that way: diverse stories, cheaper tickets, original work…” And part of the success is that many of the shows feel like they’re about real people, whom audiences can sympathise with. Kathy and Stella is a comedy musical about outsiders who find each other through their passion for true crime. “A lot of people see themselves in these stories.”

Even with Six, written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss while they were still students – which was at the vanguard of this trend, starting at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 and now playing on Broadway and the West End – may be nominally about Henry VIII’s wives, but it tells its story through highly contemporary pop anthems about love and loss that are very relatable for many.

It's undoubtedly harder to sell tickets without a star name attached to a production, but “for these shows, the star becomes the music, the star is the show,” Moody says. “They have to retain the energy that they started with on the fringe and add a West End shine.”

That’s where word of mouth becomes invaluable. Audiences love the sense of discovery these smaller shows offer, and the chance to pass a on good recommendation to friends and family.

Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift in Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York)
Sam Tutty and Dujonna Gift in Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York)

Moody says, “It’s hard to get people to come to the theatre because of Netflix, Spotify, podcasts, restaurants. Everything else is easier – but get people into a theatre in front of a really good show and they’ll come back three more times that year and they’ll tell their friends.”

Ameena Hamid, who is a producer on Why Am I So Single?, Marlow and Moss’s much anticipated follow up to Six which arrives later in the year, says the key is “being authentic in how we talk to audiences, approach them… finding them on Instagram and TikTok, places where they actually are.”

They are bringing in broader, younger audiences because the work is broader and skews younger. “That’s what we’re seeing now. A lot of developing audience has also been around cheaper tickets, but also about what do people actually want to see,” Hamid says.

“Creators are living in the real world today and that’s where a lot of the exciting stuff happens. The nice thing about Strangers, and Single and Mincemeat is that all of those teams are being genuine in what they’re talking about.”

Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York) is a sweet, odd-couple musical inspired by the rom-coms of the Eighties and Nineties. Written by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, it was developed in regional theatre before an acclaimed run at the Kiln in Kilburn. Soon it opens in the Criterion Theatre on Piccadilly Circus.

“Enough shows are succeeding without stars or recognisable IP that it can’t be ignored. There’s something stirring that is making these shows possible,” Buchan says. “I love the idea of being part of a community of new writers who have managed to pull this off. We love all those shows and love the idea of being mentioned in the same breath as them.”

There are more coming, including Babies, a show about a year 11 class who have to keep a fake baby alive for a week after a rise in teen pregnancies concerns the school, and there are hopes for more that are currently playing in the regions.

“It’s a wonderful feeling and very unlikely,” Buchan says. “It’s also really cool it’s happening for us and those other guys all at the same time. Maybe at some point in the future we’ll all go to the pub together and get to know each other.”

Kayleigh Mcknight, Janiq Charles, Reca Oakley, Thao Therese Nguyen and Inez Budd in Six the Musical (Dave Benett)
Kayleigh Mcknight, Janiq Charles, Reca Oakley, Thao Therese Nguyen and Inez Budd in Six the Musical (Dave Benett)

There is a flipside to this good news story. Part of the reason they can come into the West End at all is they have small casts and bands, making them much cheaper to put on. Theatre is still dealing with the fall-out of funding cuts, austerity, the cost of living crisis and Covid.

Mincemeat’s Hodgson is wary of being too celebratory, cautioning that the development opportunities offered to her and many contemporaries a decade ago are vanishing. “The deluge of new musicals coming out now comes from a time when this was a lot more possible as a viable career path. There was Vault Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe was cheaper, Arts Council grants were easier to get and there were more of them.

“I fear those things are drying up. You won’t see it immediately but you’ll see it in 10 years. The people who need to make silly works, make mistakes, are just not able to do that. Where will these young makers learn their craft?”

Operation Mincemeat is at the Fortune Theatre; operationmincemeat.com, Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York) is at the Criterion Theatre; buy tickets here, Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder is at the Ambassadors Theatre; buy tickets here, Six is at the Vaudeville Theatre; buy tickets here, Babies is at the Other Palace; buy tickets here