Alexandra Palace Theatre, London –until 28 August 2022
I don’t know… you wait ages for a play about the daredevil exploits of World War 2 pilots and then two come along at once. Hot on the heels of the National’s Jack Absolute Flies Again we now have Tom, Dick & Harry the story of which will be most familiar to film buffs as the inspiration for that staple of Bank Holiday TV programming The Great Escape.
This new version goes way beyond the Hollywoodisation of events and looks at what really happened though not without a keen eye for entertainment, songs, humour and an almost immersive approach as members of the audience are dragooned into being part of the narrative. The show is a triumph for the creative and design team with strong visuals and sound design, some excellent costuming and stunning movement sequences, including an ingenious way of staging the actual escape. It’s a show which also suits the faded grandeur and cavernous expanse of the Alexandra Palace Theatre especially in its present in-the-round configuration.
As already indicated this isn’t quite the story you think you know, though the bare bones of the plot are familiar enough. Plucky airmen from the allied forces taken as prisoners of war come together under the direction of Ballard (Dominic Thorburn) to tunnel their way out of the theoretically unescapable Stalag Luft III by simultaneously constructing three tunnels named as in the show’s title.
All the time they are evading the suspicions of Kommandant Lederman (Andrew Pollard) and the eagle eyed Giesler (David Fairs) by mounting PT displays, boxing matches, choral singing and a camp (in both senses of the word) entertainment featuring the men in Carmen Miranda drag. There’s even a stylised fashion show as former Czech tailor Janáček (Andrius Gaučas) uses whatever he can find to construct the various escape outfits. Hats off (literally, in the latter case) to Beverley Norris-Edmunds for an inventive approach to movement that consistently surprises and does so much to bring the show to life.
The writing team of Andrew Pollard, Michael Hugo and Theresa Heskins are all heavily invested in bringing the show to life; two are part of the consistently excellent eleven strong acting team while the third directs. The script varies considerably in tone from the serious (the deprivations suffered by the men and the Luftwaffe’s deliberate ignoring of the Geneva Convention) to the frivolous (there’s a device which, rather like Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish, means we can understand what the Germans are saying).
Some scenes ratchet up serious dramatic tension, others are played purely for laughs with meta jokes about the mechanics of acting. This unevenness initially jars but everything is so well directed and staged that inevitably the audience fall into line and accept matters for what they are. I was occasionally reminded of the spirit of the Michael Palin series Ripping Yarns – indeed one episode from this was called “Escape from Stalag Luft 112B” – and the more the approach went on the more enjoyable it became. My only real criticism is that the show is probably too long, especially for the ages of 8+ at which it is aimed. That said, it’s difficult to know what should be cut – even the sequences which add little to the main narrative (e.g., the concert party) are such fun that it would be a shame to see them go.
Despite the varied but predominantly comic tone, it’s interesting that this production (and Jack Absolute) does not shirk away from the realities of war and insists that there is a serious side about the human cost of conflict. 50 of the 76 escapees were rounded up and mercilessly shot; most of the rest were recaptured; just three actually managed to get away. Nor is it all one sided; perhaps one of the most telling moments is when the otherwise rather one dimensional Giesler is allowed space to deliver a heartfelt speech about the cost visited upon his own loved ones. Essentially though this a stirring tale of fortitude and courage which foregrounds the ingenuity with which the escape plans were made into a reality and corrects many of the inventions visited upon the famous film. In case you’re wondering, the iconic Steve McQueen motorcycle jump may be missing in action but its real life, and perhaps even more daring counterpart, is present and correct and enough to bring a lump to the throat plus a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience. Bravo indeed!