Writers: Theresa Heskins, Andrew Pollard & Michael Hugo
Director: Theresa Heskins
Tunnelling their way back into full-scale productions one can’t help but make a comparison between The New Vic Theatre’s intricate planning of this show about the greatest of escapes from a German prisoner of war camp over the past couple of years to the actual events that took place in 1944. Tom, Dick & Harry is an elaborate and highly engineered retelling of the Allied escape from Stalag Luft III nearly eighty years ago.
The 1963 film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen and trouser legs full of sand has gone down in cinematic history but the titular names in The New Vic’s new reinvention refer to the three escape tunnels dug by the servicemen to break out from their apparently inescapable fortress. Artistic director and New Vic regular actors and creators Andrew Pollard and Michael Hugo have jointly written the script, once again supported by the theatre’s creative team who have excellent history of producing new productions. The show has even been backed by Kenny Wax productions and will transfer to London later in the summer.
Serial escapee and spiffingly stereotypical RAF serviceman Ballard (Dominic Thorburn) finds himself in the ‘cooler’ in Stalag Luft: thirty days of isolation – the most severe punishment allowable under the code of The Geneva Convention. Returned to the huts amongst the 600 or so serviceman he is more determined than ever to ‘crack’ the camp and flee into occupied Europe. Aided by officer ‘Wings’ (Andrew Pollard) and a host of airmen from the Allied and Commonwealth countries a complicated, audacious and almost impossible escape plan is hatched that would involve digging and concealing three tunnels, disposing of tonnes of sand, forging documents to be used on the outside and tailoring ‘civvy’ clothes to aid their disguise once (or more likely if) they break free. Two years of toil is truncated into two hours of theatre as the men team together to tunnel to freedom under the noses of the Nazis!
The creative team at The New Vic theatre have honed their craft over years of outstanding productions and under Haskins’ directorship there is a familiar code of theatrical invention seen in many of her shows. Swiftness and alacrity have become a trademark as scenes can switch with a precise push of a table waiting for a readied actor at the opposite side of the stage. As ever, the entire auditorium is used as playing space. Heskins wants us to feel like we are party to the subterfuge – readied and waiting ourselves to crawl the 300 metres under the barded wire fence. Composer and musical director James Atherton has created a soundscape that pulses the action along, building the suspense in the style of a typical war movie. As ever at this theatre the design of the show is stunning. Laura Willstead’s set may look deceptively simple but is instantly transportable and nimble to maneuver as the cast disappear and reappear through several stage trap doors. The projection work, created by Illuminos, are very impressive. Aided by Daniella Beattie’s lighting design and Alex Day’s sound design the floor projection often takes us into the working of Ballard’s mind as his brain ticks through the complexity of the plans – a visual replica of firing neurons and logistical wizardry.
Many of the cast each play their own individual international serviceman – Australian, American, Jamaican, Czech and Dutch. Co-creators of the piece Pollard and Hugo also double as German commanding officers overseeing the camp Lederman and Huber – a surprisingly amiable duo that despite being Nazis and affiliated with the Gestapo promote a mutual respect between enemy officers. As the comic foil, German guard and watchman Geisler (David Fairs) can have much freedom as he frequently blows his lid as he becomes increasingly frustrated at his failed attempts to discover the whereabouts of the tunnel – much to the amusement of the men. There are some pacing issues in the first half of the play and although the storytelling is fast paced it takes a little bit of time to invest into the narrative. Similarly, because we know little about the back story of the men, their desires for freedom and because the camp doesn’t seem all that bad (despite measly rations) it is often hard to justify why the men go to such extraordinary lengths to escape rather than to sit out the war. Indeed, for Wings it is almost admittedly sport. Despite all its ingenuity, it wasn’t until much later in the piece whilst following Bob’s flight across Europe to neutral Spain that we understand a little more about the men’s lives before the war and who they may be wanting to return to. The result is, a little frustratingly, our camaraderie doesn’t extend as much as we want.
Once again, the team at The New Vic have produced an inventive and original piece of the theatre and it is this consistently high quality of work that makes it a leader of regional theatre in this country. Tom, Dick and & Harry is no exception.
Runs until 9 July 2022