Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby

Script by Steven Knight, choreography by Benoit Swan Pouffer
Rambert Dance and Birmingham Hippodrome
The Lowry, Salford

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Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby Credit: Johan Persson
Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby Credit: Johan Persson
Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby Credit: Johan Persson
Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby Credit: Johan Persson
Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby Credit: Johan Persson
Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby Credit: Johan Persson

Strange things are happening in the world of dance. Birmingham Royal Ballet has announced plans to stage a ballet based upon the works of heavy rock group Black Sabbath. But first, there is Rambert Dance’s interpretation of the massively popular TV show Peaky Blinders.

This ought not to come as a surprise, Rambert Dance has always taken a radical approach to attracting new audiences to the artform. One recalls the ecstatic response of a schools’ audience to a dancer, done up to resemble Mick Jagger, strutting hen-like around the stage to a Willie Dixon song in Rooster.

Events in Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby take place before those in the TV series. Fans of the series will be aware Shelby was shaped (one might argue twisted) by his experiences as a soldier in the First World War. The dance opens, therefore, in the trenches with Shelby (Guillaume Quéau), his brothers and comrades committing violent acts which would be condemned in peacetime, but which make them heroes during the war.

On returning home to Birmingham, Shelby and his family and friends, including the formidable Polly Gray (Simone Damberg Würtz), turn away from the hellish factories and secure a living based around gambling on horses. Shelby is attracted to Grace (Naya Lovell) who, initially at least, seems to be exploiting her lovesick suitor. A sudden loss drives Shelby into opium-induced oblivion, but his gang, The Peaky Blinders, offer him the chance of redemption—and, in turn, Shelby may give them direction away from pointless anarchy and conflict.

Designer Moi Tran constructs a stage on top of the stage. The performance area is about three feet above the actual stage and the cast emerge from, or rush around at superhuman speed, a surrounding trench. From the stalls, this allows for a macabre opening with the heads and shoulders of soldiers emerging during a firefight. The first scene serves as a shocking depiction of solders as cannon fodder—the cast as a twitching line vulnerable to slaughter as if in a fairground shooting gallery. A theme of Peaky Blinders is that Shelby’s personality and view of life is formed during his wartime service. The point is made visually by Musa Motha, who lost a leg due to bone cancer, and whose defiantly athletic performance is a tribute to the veterans of the conflict. A duet between Motha and Quéau very much one injured comrade helping another.

Benoit Swan Pouffer, who directs and choreographs, sets the mood of an extremely dark joke. Cheerful carousel horses are used to depict the steeds from which the gang derive their income. Tommy’s seduction by Grace is shown as kinky sex with him being led around the stage blindfolded, but she still takes the opportunity to pinch his wallet.

The TV show is known for the anachronistic use of present-day music in a period setting. Roman GianArthur, and a live band, offer original songs and cover versions of tunes by Radiohead, Anna Calvi and others. The ‘greatest hit’ of the series—"Red Right Hand" by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds—is played twice. Initially, it serves as a transformational moment to introduce The Peaky Blinders—the first time the audience sees them in their full glory in caps and dark suits. Pouffer stages the initial scene almost as a tableau—the dancers barely moving, just striking a pose. When the song is played as an encore, the gang is in full hip-swerving, legs-spread swagger.

Steven Knight, who created the series and scripted the adaptation, comes from a background of the written / spoken word. It is possible he may not be entirely comfortable with dance, which tells stories in a physical manner. Blank verse narration, spoken by Benjamin Zephaniah, who performed in the series, seems like gilding the lily as the troupe’s dancing ensures there is no difficulty following the story. The second act, in which grief drives Shelby to drug-induced oblivion, is the closest to pure dance—the story being told purely through movement without verbal comment.

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby goes far beyond being a means to attract new audiences to dance becoming a vital part of the Shelby saga. Cameron Mackintosh famously produced Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake because it had all the features one would expect in a hit musical. Well, if he’s looking for an encore…

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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