Chris Eldon Lee reviews Tom, Dick and Harry which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme until Saturday 9th July.
My wife is German. She has been living in England for almost 40 years and has never understood why the English are so obsessed with telling and re-telling and telling again the events of 80 years ago. Endless books, films, television dramas and theatre plays … all about World War Two. You don’t get that in Germany.
It is imperative, of course, that war stories are still told … in order to deter repetitions of the real thing. (Though that tragically hasn’t stopped the Russians). But what is there new to be said on the subject?
War in Ukraine was way off the news agenda when New Vic actors Michael Hugo, Andrew Pollard and director Theresa Heskins visited the National Archives to research the story of Stalag Luft III…the state-of-the-art, escape- proof camp designed by Goebbels himself for his prized RAF prisoners. It is the New Vic’s proud policy to go back to the original source of a story – the facts, as recorded at the time – before telling it again. So they scanned 1500 former ‘top secret’ documents and set to work to create this new play.
Their search did unearth some new nuggets of nuance and information. But the most important new thing the New Vic has brought to the legend of the British escape from the Stalag … is style and panache. The story is familiar, but it’s never been told like this before. The all-male production bounced seamlessly around from genre to genre : slapstick panto to breathless gymnastics display; corny drag act (singing a song about a ‘banana’) to a sinister, black-masked, dumb show.
There is no shortage of cliches and stereotypes (all’s fair in love and war) but uncomfortable truths do surface in between. Michael Hugo’s cartoon portrayal of an easily fooled Camp Commandant suddenly breaks into three dimensions when he sees which way the war is going and seeks to save his skin by faux kindness to his prisoners. David Fairs’ snivelling camp guard is hood-winked all the way by the would be escapees, but delivers a painful speech about what the RAF has done to the poor people of Hamburg and Dresden. As with all the New Vic’s historical docu-comedies, there is grit in the blancmange.
We are never allowed to forget we are watching a play. The actors mime doors and then take the mickey out of themselves doing it. There is a ‘translation’ button to press when the dialogue switches from English to German and back again…and when they tire of this device, they give themselves artistic licence to speak English all the time. Audience members are recruited as lookouts to warn of a prison warder who might overhear their plotting … and are then soundly berated when they fail in their duties. A German guard is sent on holiday and gets into unarmed combat with his deckchair. The crowd-pleasing set pieces tend to be to be played for their own sake.
Dominic Thornburn plays the public-school mastermind Roger Ballard who plans the escape and thus the story’s plot. They are going to tunnel their way out. He bans the actual word ‘tunnel’ to avoid being overheard … so the three (ahem!) horizontal shafts are called Tom, Dick and Harry. Surely one of them is bound to be successful.
In a twist I had not seen before, it is Ballard who spots something odd about a game of Monopoly, sent in by The Red Cross for Christmas. This is one of the play’s cleverest moments and I absolutely trust the New Vic that it’s true.
The actual escape attempt is very cleverly choreographed. We’ve seen the escapees’ biographies, so we care about them as individuals as they take their turn.
One by one the prostrate men are pulled across stage on rope-drawn wooden bogies along a tunnel of bright light… to emerge onto the surface, beyond the camp wire, desperately dodging the roving searchlights. There is genuine theatrical tension here … subtly underscored by James Atherton’s disturbing soundtrack.
The final act moves the play up to another level. It puts Hugo centre stage as his other character ‘Bob’ tries to flee to a friendly country, menaced at every turn by black veiled spies and Gestapo who silently stalk his panicky progress. After all the fun and games, this is a piercing reality check. As we know, very few made it home.
This is a compendium production. Snippets of true stories skilfully woven into one memorable, largely light-hearted narrative. It primarily sets out to entertain… for which it received a standing, press night, ovation.