Review of Tom, Dick & Harry – a spectacular and daring version of The Great Escape | Theater

Jom, Dick and Harry are the three tunnels dug 30 feet below the German POW camp Stalag Luft III in 1943-44 by captive Allied POWs. The action opens in the cockpit of a bomber hit by enemy fire; it continues through prison camp huts, takes us underground through tunnels supported by slats caught in beds, then brings us back to the surface to watch the escapees climb through a hole and run as searchlights probe the sheltering darkness. We follow Bob through Holland and Belgium to the Spanish border and – like a daring leap over barbed wire – security.

Aspects of this story may be familiar from the 1963 film The great Escape. In this spectacularly imaginative new version, however, we don’t just watch, we seem to live alongside the prisoners. The three screenwriters, Andrew Pollard, Michael Hugo (who also performs) and Theresa Heskins (who directs) bring us closer to the reality of events by basing their play on sources, including the detailed accounts of survivors.

The staging, like the escape itself, is bold and inventive. Heskins has developed a distinctive style since becoming artistic director of this in-the-round theater in 2007. Key features include highly physical performances incorporating clowns and sight gags, the intertwining of floor projections, sound and music to evoke places, and public participation. All of these elements are present here, which makes the production so bold.

Pervasive Danger: Andrew Pollard and David Fairs in Tom, Dick & Harry. Photography: Andrew Billington

Its subject matter is deadly serious – out of 76 escapees, 50 are believed to have been killed. The way of telling, however, is humorous, even eccentric: very early on, we are introduced to a “translating machine”; when it works, German characters speak English, but with original accents and syntax.

In part, the tone reflects that set by the prisoners themselves, as when, for example, escapees are selected by lot at a Christmas concert in full view of their captors. Against this lightness, the darkness is austere: the threat of a grenade thrown into a newly discovered tunnel where men are still digging; the fury of a guard who exclaims: “Our families are starving while you are joking… your bombs are falling on our houses” (elsewhere, the treatment of the kidnappers sometimes turns into an ugly caricature).

To succeed, the escapees would need “talent and ingenuity”. As these cast and crew have demonstrated, the same is true of theatre.

At New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until July 9

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