Rambert’s Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
February 21, 2022

After the premiere of Rambert’s Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Tommy Shelby back in September 2022, I dared to suggest that they might just have a hit on their hands. And indeed, it is still packing them in, although perhaps that’s no great surprise given the roaring success of the nine-year, six-series, TV drama.

And it is an entertaining show. It is undoubtedly Peaky. It will send most Peaky fans away very happy, even if it doesn’t teach us much that we didn’t already know.

The one new element comes right at the beginning in what is effectively a prequel to television’s first series. While the fact that Tommy’s troubled mind has its roots in his experiences in the trenches of World War I is noted in the original, here we actually get to see it.

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby
Photo Johan Persson

As the evening moves on to the post-war, mostly shady-at-best, activities of the family, the action is visceral and fast-paced. Given that the production was written by television series creator Steven Wright, no-one should be surprised that it’s uncompromising and sometimes unsettling.

Revisiting the show did confirm other thoughts that crystalised after that first viewing, however. Once past the horrors of the trenches, the first act is extremely pacy, probably too much so. Even so, there are some fabulous pictures painted along the way, most notably the Birmingham metal works, a scene that includes an impressive all-female dance. And if audiences struggle to work out the story from the choreography, Birmingham poet Benjamin Zephaniah provides wonderful pre-recorded narration throughout. Snippets of dialogue from the TV series also work well.

Benoit Swan Pouffer’s choreography is busy. The stage is often packed with dancers, the action racing along. There are moments when there are some super solos happening but, so is so much else, that they get missed.

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby
(pictured: Naya Lovell as Grace and Guillaume Quéau as Thomas)
Photo Johan Persson

As the show’s subtitle suggests, it is very much about Tommy Shelby rather than the family as a whole. Joseph Kudra has a powerful presence in the title role but never gets close to complex, mean, brooding individual played by Cillian Murphy on TV, in no small part a consequence of the speed at which everything is taken. And yes, I know maybe you shouldn’t compare, but when a dance show is so firmly rooted in a recent television series, it’s impossible not to.

Almost everyone else is only sketchily drawn. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Zephaniah’s introductions, it would be difficult to tell most of the other men apart in particular. Even the quick-to-anger, Arthur (Dylan Tedaldi) is a shadow of his television self.

The exception is the quite brilliant Musa Motha as Jeremiah, actually played by Zephaniah on TV. His left leg amputation naturally helps but he dances with such swagger, such outstanding speed and clarity of movement that he would stand out anyway.

Rambert’s Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby
Photo Johan Persson

The women fare slightly better, although all are much reduced in importance including Polly, in many ways the one who keeps Tommy in one piece. Simone Damberg-Würtz does get very close to resembling the character, however. Running her close, Angélique Blasco gives a powerful portrayal as the mother of Luca Changretta, the New York mafioso with a vendetta against the Shelbys.

Grace (Seren Williams) is shown as rather more sultry than on TV. Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of her and Tommy together. Their meeting, courting, wedding is over so quickly that it fails to convince. Her death is quite poignant, though.

After the pace of the first half, Swan Pouffer and Wright’s post-interval throwing on of the brakes comes as a surprise. The scene in the opium dens includes some intense and beautiful moments, but feels overly drawn out and self-indulgent.

Things do get back on track, though. The fight scene that is the Battle of Charlie’s Yard, although again perhaps too long, is surely be one of the best ever choreographed. The set-to is very realistic. Sadly, and probably due to the size of the Northampton stage, the burning of the gypsy caravan at John’s funeral gets a little lost.

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby
(pictured: Guillaume Quéau as Thomas Shelby)
Photo Johan Persson

While there may be question marks about the show as a whole, there are absolutely none about the music. Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby may sit somewhere between a dance performance and a rock concert but it’s the music that wins hands down time and again. Composer Roman Gianarthur’s score is suitably menacing and loud. As they belt it out powerfully, the trio of Yaron Engler, James Douglas and The Last Morrell, positioned upstage on platforms and often only just visible through the haze that shrouds almost the whole show, are quite simply fabulous.

Elsewhere, Richard Gellar’s costumes and Moi Tran’s set remain a visual feast, although large, raise platform nature of the latter remains an issue, significantly restricting the view for anyone in the front few rows.

The choreography of the final tableau to Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’, the theme from the TV series, an adapted reprise from Act One, makes for a very satisfying conclusion.

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby is undoubtedly bringing in a new audience, for which all concerned should be heartily congratulated. One only hopes they can be persuaded to return for other offerings. Also uncertain is whether the work will live on in the repertory. Its present popularity relies very much on the TV series being fresh in people’s minds but that will fade with time. For now though, it’s a show with more than enough to keep Peaky fans happy, even if it does lack some of the darkness and the fury of the original.

Rambert in Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby continues at Royal & Derngate, Northampton to February 25, 2023; and on tour to May 27, 2023. Visit www.rambert.org.uk for all dates and venues.