Tom, Dick and Harry: wartime tunnel caper has ingenuity in spades

Dominic Thorburn in Tom, Dick and Harry

Dominic Thorburn in Tom, Dick and Harry - Credit: Andrew Billington

Tom, Dick and Harry

Alexandra Palace Theatre

****

Theresa Heskins' staging of the legendary escape from Stalag Luft III deploys almost as much ingenuity as the men who broke out wearing uniforms dyed with library book covers and peak caps fashioned from gramophone records.

Named after the three tunnels they dug under the noses of their German guards, it's based on Top Secret files in The National Archives which were closed until the 1970s - so unseen by the makers of 1963 classic The Great Escape.

A translation machine enabling German characters to speak cod English sets the tone early as Heskins and co-writers Michael Hugo and Andrew Pollard - who also perform  - conjure something uniquely theatrical from the daring mass breakout.

Aided by some co-opted audience members, nine verstatile performers use movement, song, magic and humour tell an uplifting story - as one survivor put it - celebrating the "spirit and organisation" of airmen from the Caribbean, Australia, Africa, North America and Europe rather than "the glory for the lucky few chosen out of the hat to take the final risk".

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The camp had a fully fitted theatre with seating made from the Red Cross boxes that supplemented meagre rations and costumes hired from Berlin. Thus there's a drag Carmen Verandah number complete with raffle to see who gets to escape.

Tom Dick and Harry at Alexandra Palace Theatre

Andrew Pollard and David Fairs in Tom, Dick and Harry, which originated at the New Vic Theatre Newcastle-Under-Lyme and comes to Alexandra Palace in July - Credit: Andrew Billington

A stylised boxing match provides cover to swipe a guard's papers, and a hilarious fashion show presents clothing used by escapees to blend into occupied Europe. Later there's the thrilling night-time escape dodging searchlights and Nazis, and Bob's tense "home run" through Germany, Holland, France, and over a barbed wire fence into Spain.

The humour in adversity is underpinned by real hardship and risk – projections of the camp layout, fears of tunnel collapse, and movingly, the testimony of a survivor describing the fate of many escapees, brings home reality.

The Geneva Convention – celebrated here in song – offered vital protection for POWs even if it's resented by one German guard who complains that they joke and drink coffee while our families starve and bombs drop on our houses.

Entertaining, inventive, thought-provoking, this tunnel caper has it in spades.

Tom Dick and Harry runs at Alexandra Palace Theatre until August 28. www.alexandrapalace.com/whats-on/tom-dick-and-harry/