Tom, Dick and Harry ★★★★

Tom, Dick and Harry retells the story of The Great Escape – but does The Recs dig it?

It must be difficult to avoid the trappings of previous incarnations when you are adapting a classic story for stage, especially when it’s the beloved 1963 movie The Great Escape. Seemingly a permanent fixture in the telly Christmas schedules (although in fact it was only broadcast twice during the festive season between 1964 and 2009), that film certainly cast a long shadow. The question facing the production team is how to make it fresh, original and also depict escape by tunnel in a theatre space! 

Based on the true story of the daring escape from Stalag Luft III German prisoner of war cap, Tom Dick and Harry offers an unexpected and eclectic retelling which features lots of imaginative elements such as music, dance, gymnastics visual gags and plenty of friendly audience interaction throughout. You too could be a forger or a wooden gun whittler!

All photos by Andrew Billington

The arrival of serial escaper, Squadron Leader Ballard, (confidently played by Dominic Thorburn) brings with him the expertise and experience to mastermind an audacious escape plan to thwart the camp which has been designed to be escape proof.

Staged in the round, the production cleverly uses all areas of the vast space of the theatre to its benefit and still manages to transport you to the confined world of the detention camp and the tunnels themselves.

The staging is visually inventive and highly stylised. This is particularly showcased during the escape scenes as the characters, now dressed in civilian clothing fashioned out of blankets by the Czech tailor Janáček (played by Andrius Gaučas), they enter the tunnel via a trap door in the stage and by some theatrical legerdemain appear in the theatre’s proscenium arch climbing down a ladder from the ceiling into the depths of the tunnel. Continuing the bravura set pieces, we witness the escapees travel through imaginary tunnels as they pull each other along on trollies with ropes across the stage and then re-emerge from under the stage to make a break for their freedom between the glare of searchlights.

The excellent sound (Alex Day), lighting (Daniella Beattie) and in particular the projection (Matt and Rob Vale of Illuminos) onto the stage floor add to the overall inventive successes of the production. Used throughout to introduce characters, show maps, the passing of time and inner thought processes, the projections coupled with stylised direction (Theresa Heskins), add particular tension and interest when we follow the journey of Dutch Airman and inventor Bob (Michael Hugo) as he makes the risky trip across Europe to his freedom.

The theme of escapism rather than escape often dominates the proceedings, informed by the Commandant’s prevailing ethos of his detention camp. The beginning of Act 2 features an It Ain’t Half Hot Mum-style talent show concert giving the cast the perfect excuse for some dress-up and the show an added musical interlude. The show certainly has a thread of jollity and knockabout which is aimed at keeping the show family-friendly.  

There are some less successful moments of high camp slapstick which sit awkwardly with the dark poignant moments. A particular low point are scenes of the camp guard Giesler who we see tackling a deckchair whilst trying to enjoy an enforced holiday in the style of Mr Bean. In contrast, when given the chance to defy the stereotypical comedy Nazi, David Fairs creates a spellbinding moment with his embittered speech at the camp concert about the true cost of war on Germans citizens.

For all its imagination and beautifully-realised set pieces, there’s something of a hole at the heart of this production and it’s not the tunnels Tom, Dick or Harry. The show is a comedy-drama but only in the sense that sometimes it’s a comedy, sometimes it’s a drama but rarely is it both at the same time. It wants to be a rip-roaring tale of adventure and derring-do but then it gets the sense it shouldn’t be too glib over this true story, set in a harrowing historical period.

Fittingly the show finishes by acknowledging the often tragic stories of the other prisoners who didn’t escape. With an emotional recording of a real-life escapee, it is a timely reminder that life at Stalag Luft III wasn’t all fun and games.

The Recs gives Tom, Dick and Harry  ★★★★ (four stars) for the visual presentation that digs a conflicted production out of a hole.  

Tom, Dick and Harry Tickets

Tom, Dick and Harry runs at Alexandra Palace until 28 August 2022

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