Jhe authors of Tom, Dick and Harry care about the authenticity of the play. It was not until 1972 that much of the war material related to Allied escapes from Stalag Luft III was declassified. This was more than two decades after Paul Brickhill told the story in The Great Escape, the book that inspired Steve McQueen’s film. Digging through the National Archives today, Andrew Pollard, Michael Hugo and Theresa Heskins were able to access information inaccessible to earlier storytellers.
No doubt they discovered fascinating details, but the outline remains the same. At a POW camp run by the Luftwaffe, captured air force personnel make two major attempts to dig a tunnel. The second time, after building tunnels named Tom, Dick, and Harry, 76 of them manage to flee – but not for long.
As a director, however, Heskins seems less concerned with historical accuracy than with giving audiences a good time. She adopts the larky tone of shows such as Patrick Barlow’s version of The 39 Steps and her own Around the World in 80 Days (which also featured Pollard and Hugo), making gags about the theatrical convention, while throwing members of the public into small pieces. There are silly songs, dances and voices – all to bring the story to theatrical life. The all-male cast plays along – a Carmen Miranda routine here, a stomping rendition of Amazing Grace there.
As fun as it is, the process raises questions. Even taking Geneva conventions into account, Stalag Luft III comes across as a pretty laid-back place – a summer camp spiced up with cat-and-mouse antics. The broad comic brushstrokes also do little to dispel patriotic clichés about cartoonish Nazi villains beaten down by resourceful allies led by privately educated Britons.
And the biggest question of all, why tell this story in the first place? Yes, it’s a fascinating story of organization, enterprise and engineering, but the escape has little emotional or political resonance beyond the facts themselves. The show culminates, however, in a frantic race for freedom, an extended scene of visual invention in which Bob d’Hugo takes a push bike after squeezing through the tunnel, bypassing the Gestapo and sliding across the borders.