Written by Steven Knight
Directed & Choreographed by Benoit Swan Pouffer
The Festival Theatre is under new management folks, and they’re not the type you’d want to raise a complaint with.
Not that you’d have any with the venue’s newest show, as Edinburgh welcomes the highly anticipated Rambert’s Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby – a spiritual prequel to the period crime drama, written by the tremendously successful television series’ head writer Steven Knight.
Wandering from the shrapnel, the shudders of shell-shocked soldiers set off the chain of events which find Thomas Shelby, a man returning to Birmingham from war. It’s a conflict which will remain with Thomas throughout his life. Whether he accepts it or not. And it’s a remarkable narrative standpoint to construct around. Reclaiming turf with the aid of his family, comrades, and a few familiar faces from the television show, Thomas makes a mark in the city as the Rambert troupe shift between various roles with ease, channelling a high-octane thriving burst of energy, or the listless despondency of this rather bleak world at the drop of a flat cap.
Rambert’s artistic director, Benoit Swan Pouffer’s style of choreography here is designed to survive – existing in a permanent sense of flight or fight, thundering with adrenaline and bravissimo channelled through the entire troupe. It’s violent in concept and execution, Conor Kerrigan taking full advantage of the stage-combat elements to infuse Arthur, the more combustive of the Shelby lot, a dangerous twang of the unpredictable. Bouncing with as much an itch to impress and fight as Kerrigan is Musa Motha, playing Barney, another of Thomas’ ex-military pals whose quick-paced flitters across the stage offer momentum as they round the raised staging.
But there’s a touching temperance to the movement, an anticipated duet with Guillaume Quéau’s Tommy Shelby and love interest Naya Lovell’s Grace, shifted from her television role to now being a club singer. The engagement is enticing, yearning as the pair fall for one another – and though unspoken, even those unfamiliar with the loosely adapted plot know that this gentile moment cannot last. Quéau’s thrusting and twisting emerge as a machismo for a new audience, with ripples of a Marlon Brando, but with the manufactured grit formed from the elegance and poise and control of Rambert. Similarly, Burgess’ starring role as Grace may not have as distinct a stage time as Quéau but captivates in delicacy and ability to tempt and match Quéau’s speed, keeping one another on the tips of their toes.
Care is taken not to blur comprehension for audiences: ensuring those unfamiliar with the show, those unfamiliar with dance performance, and indeed those unfamiliar with both can quickly catch up. Remarkably, while the beats of this prequel follow similar movements to the initial episodes of the hit BBC show, The Redemption of Tommy Shelby retains originality in both arc and development – a creation wholly of its own, a transmedia experience separate, but connected, to the show fans have loved for years.
Throughout, the quality of the visage is spectacular. Simply put, Rambert: Peaky Blinder looks phenomenal. Moi Trann’s scenic craft and Richard Geller’s costumes evoke the decadence, depravity and yes, even campness of Knight’s original writing while ensuring a solid setting for Rambert’s stellar movement. From the surreal warping which turns addiction into a physical manifestation, or personifies police hounds into leather-clad dancers, it all catapults the show into a visual spectacle of magnificence which is matched by its dance work, if let down a touch by the storytelling behind it all which never goes below the surface.
The initially stark, even grim, visions of opium takers clad with rotten sheets opening the second act make way for an exceptionally tumultuous and distracting sense of abstraction of depression and addiction, as women in golden headpieces parade the peripherals of Shelby’s sight. It’s a stark change of pace from the initial act which despite its short length, manages to achieve a great deal – even if significant characters are left somewhat at the side-lined, including Adél Balint’s Aida, and the utter force who is Simone Damberg Würtz’s, Aunt Polly. The pair have limited stage-time, but devour every minute of it, their movement’s in keeping with the character, Bálint’s Ada gradually growing in confidence as Würtz’s Polly has but to walk across the stage to make their presence felt.
And if thus far you’ve resisted the urge to join in the dance, then it might be even harder to resist the call of the mosh-pit, the live band belting out an assortment of thumping rhythm from choice hits. A prominent feature of which is the undoubtedly atmospheric and unmistakable theme of the show, Nick Cave and The Bad Seed’s Red Right Hand synchronises perfectly to Natasha Chiver’s lighting which flickers from snaps of blinding whites to debauched royal purples and eventually to more desperate flashes of lurid green or opioid yellow.
Translating a juggernaut television series, noted for its violence and long-arcing storytelling seems a ludicrous task, but when moving the period crime drama to the stage, Rambert has once more proved its standing as one of the world’s finest and most innovative creators. Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby maintains the authority of the show, with a musing attitude fused with a delicacy and intimate form of movement, offering an additional entryway for new audiences into the medium of dance, through a popular gateway.
Entryway for New Audiences
Rambert: Peaky Blinders runs at The Festival Theatre until March 4th. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.30pm. Saturday Matinee at 14.30pm
Running Time – two hours and ten minutes incl. one interval. Suitable for ages 15+
Tickets begin from £21.50 and may be obtained here.