September 28, 2022
It’s Rambert as they have never been seen before, on a scale not seen for a very long time, but for those who loved Peaky Blinders on TV, there were a few bugging questions around the company’s new Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, written and adapted for the stage by creator Steven Knight, and directed and choreographed by Rambert’s Artistic Director Benoit Swan Pouffer. Would it be as visceral? Would it still have all that unashamed dark grittiness? Effectively, would it still be Peaky Blinders?
In short, yes, yes and yes! It ticks all the Peaky boxes. Stylish, full of familiar moments and familiar characters in familiar settings (although not their pub), Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby will send followers of the small-screen exploits of the man and his family away very happy. The often-broad-brush narrative is clear enough for those who have never met the Shelby’s before too, although some of the subtler detail may not be apparent.
Knight and Swan Pouffer pick the story up at the end of World War I, just before the TV series starts. An explosive opening recreates its horrors, the sound of shells and gunfire embedded cleverly in the music. Initially black, shapeless figures, the men of the family clamber from their trenches and foxholes. Desperately affected by the traumas they experienced, they really do appear alive but dead inside.
From there, the action shifts to a factory that is very realistic and complete with sparks flying. Already the menfolk of the family are established as quietly menacing: definitely not people to cross. Be warned! Much of the violence is extremely realistic.
Scenes at the races and a night club follow, before Tommy meets and falls for Grace Burgess. It really is full on. The action rattles along, every song (there are 17 of them in Act 1 and 21 in Act 2) seeming to bring something new. That does mean few of the characters are developed, although that’s not a problem if you know them beforehand.
As Tommy, Guillaume Quéau was previously all hidden depths and simmering rage. That’s now put aside as he turns all gentle and tender. As Grace, Naya Lovell Lovell is strong, as befits someone actually a Special Branch agent on a mission to get close to the Shelby gang, but elegant with it. She almost floats in a love duet that verges on the ethereal rather than the passionate.
In Act 2, we see Tommy’s descent into opium dependency after Grace has been killed. The scene comes in stark contrast to what goes before. With the addicts on beds attended to by dealer-cum-chemists dressed in costumes that also hint at them being doctors, a lengthy dance scene is decidedly strange and other-worldly. It’s impossible not to draw parallels with dream scenes in classic ballets.
As the title suggests, eventually we find ourselves back amid real-world violence and gang warfare. The final set too is brilliantly done, although even that is eclipsed by the gypsy funeral (Peaky viewers will know what to expect!).
For all the story is focused on Tommy, just as on TV, it’s elder brother Arthur who constantly attracts the attention. As the clearly depressed, loyal but quick to anger and coldly violent elder brother, he steals almost every scene he’s in, sometimes simply by being there.
Elsewhere, look out for the superb Musa Motha, who plays Barney, who lost his left leg to cancer aged just 10, but who moves with supreme ease, his crutch doubling as a mark of courage and very effective weapon.
It’s a show very much about the men of the family. Aunt Polly, such a powerful figure on TV, has a much-reduced role, although Simone Damberg-Würtz is a picture as she struts around. The principal characters are superbly supported by the ensemble.
The occasional words from the recorded voice of narrator Benjamin Zephaniah (Jeremiah in the series) work well, first introducing the main characters (handy for those not familiar with them) and then illuminating key points of the story.
The action is all pushed along by the super upstage band (The Last Morrell, James Douglas and Yaron Engler) who pound out Roman GianArthur’s music to great effect. Act 1 in particular is very loud. Expect your seat to be vibrating! Peaky wouldn’t be Peaky without Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’, of course. Rest assured, it puts in two appearances, along with one or two other iconic songs.
Designer Richard Geller’s costumes evoke period, while occasionally diving into a more twisted, imagined world. Look out for the steam punk police dogs!
There is a ‘but’. Moi Tran’s set has most of the action taking place on a platform around 80cm above the stage floor. That allows for very effective depiction of the trenches in the opening scene, but it also left most in the stalls unable to see the dancers’ feet or even worse for some of the upstage, off platform action. It was annoying throughout. Tip: sit upstairs. This is a show where the front row is definitely not the place to be if you want to see everything.
That stage aside, Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby is a fantastic evening of dance theatre. I suspect Rambert have a huge hit on their hands. I’m sure the show will attract people who would not otherwise dream of attending dance. That has to be good. Will it make them come back? There was some impatient fidgeting in the slower, more thoughtful first half of Act 2, but we have to hope.