Tokyo Rose (New Diorama)

Three ladies stand, frozen, with microphones poised on a raised bit of stage as the audience takes their seats in the auditorium of the New Diorama. Two others sit, one each side of the stage area, still and quiet.

It’s 1949, and Iva Toguri (Maya Britto) is on trial for treason, but is that her crime or is her birth country the USA looking for someone to blame “who looks Japanese” after a bruising and demoralising war?

Yuki Sutton, Maya Britto, Hannah Benson in Tokyo Rose
Yuki Sutton, Maya Britto, Hannah Benson in Tokyo Rose

Based on a true story, Tokyo Rose is a brave and powerful new musical from Burnt Lemon Theatre written by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin, and directed by Hannah Benson. It is female-led and fuses rap with more traditional solos, duets, trios and ensemble songs (composed by William Patrick Harrison).

Iva Toguri finds herself an enemy alien in Japan when she is stranded looking after her aunt just as Pearl Harbor is bombed. Her choices: give up her US citizenship, which she cannot do, and broadcast on a propaganda network, which she does, lead to exploitation first by a British major loyal to the allies (Cara Baldwin, also playing the prosecutor) and then by an unscrupulous American journalist (Benson, also playing the judge) sniffing out a scoop whether true or not.

Cast of Tokyo Rose
Cast of Tokyo Rose

A huge hit at this year’s Edinburgh fringe, this show boasts impressive vocals and harmonies from its cast of five, and a plot which gives Iva and those around her (mother – Yuki Sutton, aunt – Lucy Park) real heart. By the courtroom scenes we are firmly on her side seeing an injustice done: her only crime her naive belief in patrotism.

Tokyo Rose does not shy away from the impact of war on anyone involved – the native Japanese, the American citizens with Jaoanese heritage, the American military, the displaced Americans in Japan. Any thought of victory is a hollow one when families die in camps or are vaporized by an atomic bomb.

Iva becomes “little orphan Ann” but her broadcasts are pitched as satire, not sedition: her words aimed against the country in which she is alien, not against the flag.

I found Tokyo Rose a vibrant piece of theatre which takes a little-known piece of history and gives a voice to its protagonist. In real-life, Toguri (as we are told in an ending round-up) was eventually cleared of her alleged crime, the Rose having been an allied invention appropriated by an opportunist hack and fuelled by xenophobia. She remained a loyal American and died in 2006 at the age of 90.

Tokyo Rose runs at the New Diorama until 12 October. It’s practically sold out, but you could try the returns queue. Production photo credit – The Other Richard.

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Operation Mincemeat (New Diorama Theatre)

Having grown up with the war film The Man That Never Was, I’m familiar with the basic facts of the operation which allowed British forces to hit back against the Nazi occupation by duping the enemy over Sicily.

The company of Operation Mincemeat

The company of Operation Mincemeat

Here, creative company SpitLip have created a musical about this very operation, which manages to be both irreverent (to the Germans, the British, and even a sole American airman) and respectful to those living through and lost in war.

Men play women (notably office secretary Hester, whose love letter is a small masterpiece, “why did we meet in the middle of a war … the roses miss you”), and women play men (a wonderful Montagu, all bluster and physical posturing, including top hat and high kick finale), but this company of five are adept at quick character metamorphosis throughout.

The company of Operation Mincemeat

The company of Operation Mincemeat

Charles Cholmondely is a geek who loves insects, a clumsy man whose limbs seem too large for his body, who dominates his scenes through his innate awkwardness. In two duets, one with the Montagu he idolises (“some were born to follow, but we were born to leave”), and one with young typist Jean, we see the measure of the man.

A Nazi jackboot song and dance heading up act two, a sleazy coroner who supplies bodies (“must have a head … must be a man”), a celebrity pathologist (music hall style), and even sultry club singer Velvet, all add to the colour of this accomplished show.

Board at New Diorama Theatre box office

Board at New Diorama Theatre box office

The design of the show (by Helen Coyston, Sherry Coenen and Dan Balfour) utilises hanging telephones, blocks, lighting cues, and a small band of three slightly off to the side. Operation Mincemeat, a mix of comedy and glam, “Singin’ in the Rain meets Strangers on a Train”, is an absolute triumph.

SpitLip are three members of comedy troupe Kill The Beast (David Cumming’s Cholmondely, Natasha Hodgson’s Montagu, and Zoe Roberts’ Bevan), with composer Felix Hagan.

They are joined here by Joe Malone (Hester, US airman) and Rory Furey-King (Jean, Velvet), with Ellen O’Reilly and Lewis Jenkins completing the band.

Set design of Operation Mincemeat
Set design of Operation Mincemeat

Everyone involved should be proud of this superlative show. It closes today, but surely has a future, as do SpitLip‘s musical creations: more please!