It’s anarchy. Very British theatrical anarchy. Think a touch of audience participation (in the best – or worse – pantomime tradition, a measure of in-your-face stand-up comedy routine, add those perennial satire subjects – people who have the misfortune to be native to the far side of the English Channel – then stir in a drop of two of heroic war hero movies.
No. it’s not or one of its siblings. It’s Ha Ha Hitler from the team which took the mickey out of Hamlet and has Sherlock Homes in its sights. The show’s subtitle is The Great(ish) Escape and it’s extremely clever in the way it both manipulates its audience’s preconceptions and subverts them. Of course the Gestapo was terrifying and evil; of course French civilians were killed sometimes for no reason at all; of course POWs paid the price of failed escapes; of course ordinary people died in bombing raids. The trick is to make this subtext lie dormant, just protruding when you least expect it.
The main characters are Tom – Squadron Leader Tommy Bristol, Dick – Flying Officer Dick Ashton and (no, not Harry) Hilary – the Reverend Flight Lieutenant Hilary Luton. They’ve been recaptured after the umpteenth escape attempt and now are at the mercy of General von Schnitzershitz at his Château Plonke headquarters. Somehow Sophie, the last of the Ce Soir family to whom the château belongs, is still in the house and determined to do her bit for the Résistance.
A flexible set with three three-sided screens and moveable furnishings takes us from room to room as the officers plot their getaway and the general prepares to welcome Hitler with a variety performance mounted by his prisoners. There are a couple of marvellously still moments which jerk us back to the realities behind the spoof. One is when snow falls and distant carols sound. The other is when Tommy learns that his mother has been killed in the Coventry blitz.
Writer Ben Langley plays Tommy, relishing in his juggling skills and relationship with the audience. Paul Taylor is the quick-change artist, switching between sadistic commander and blatantly gay Dick with glee. Andrew Fettes – who also designed the show – is the somewhat naïve padre and the comedic Hitler while Lizzie Frances revels in Sophie’s transformation from spinster frump to glamorous show-girl. It’s all great fun, but not just froth. These are performers with skills to be savoured. And that’s precisely what happens.