Rambert’s Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby – Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Stephen Knight

Director/Choreographer: Benoit Swan Pouffer

When it comes to adaptation for the stage, we are used to fairytales, novels and films being used as source material. Television series have far less often transitioned to the stage. It’s not unheard of, though: the late Kay Mellor converted her series Fat Friends into a musical, while Doctor Who has had three theatre shows, and even Coronation Street has had a stage adaptation.

BBC series Peaky Blinders, set in the gangland of post-World War I Birmingham, currently has two theatrical outlets. Alongside an immersive theatre production presently running in Camden, Rambert Dance is touring its adaptation. The not-at-all-awkwardly named Rambert Dance in Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby has been written by the TV series’ creator, Steven Knight, and combines plot points from the show alongside new material.

The series’ use of modern rock music to score the action underpins the entire dance piece, and it is a wise choice. Starting with Tommy Shelby and his brothers having to commit unspeakable acts in the name of his country on the battlefield, the pulsating bass that dominates composer Roman Gianarthur’s score (itself heavily inspired by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Red Right Hand, the series’ ever-present theme tune) echoes the cacophony of explosions the siblings endured at the front.

The opening moments utilise Moi Tran’s set, a black raised dais with an embedded trench, to significant effect, and gives us a glimpse of how the Shelbys returned from war having left a part of themselves, the moral and ethical part, with the rest of the dead.

When they return, though, the show’s narrative falls apart, at least for anyone who has not followed all six series on television. Pouffer’s choreography combines dancing styles from multiple generations, taking a cue, no doubt, from the score. But Knight and his dramaturg, Katie O’Reilly, seem content to present scenes as a “best of” reel of events, rather than as a coherent story in its own right.

Matters aren’t helped by Pouffer’s insistence on using the space in front of Tran’s raised stage for crucial moments. By placing dancers on a level with the front row of the audience, even the best seats find themselves with a restricted view. This may not be a failing at other locations on Rambert’s tour, but at the Troubadour, it contributes to the messy storytelling. At one point in Act I, one of several large fight sequences between two indistinguishable groups ends with somebody on the floor, a woman wailing at the loss: quite who he is, and what his connection to the Shelbys is, is infuriatingly unclear.

For a show which namechecks Tommy Shelby in the title, the principal Shelby sibling never feels particularly centred in Act I. Only as the interval nears and Tommy meets, then marries, dancer Grace, does Guillaume Quéau’s Tommy make a significant impact.

That improves substantially at the start of Act II, as a bereaved Tommy descends into opium use. These sequences eschew the stomping action of previous scenes to form a more contemplative, visually arresting exploration of character. With it comes a sense of what dance can do best, exploring its characters’ inner emotions through physical movement.

Unfortunately, this sequence proves to be an aberration, and soon all is back to fighting, angry pacing (something at which Simone Damberg-Würtz’s Polly Shelby is particularly adept, even if it’s never evident where she’s pacing to, or why) and occasional flashes of impressive choreography.

And there is plenty of excellent dance work amid the turmoil and confusion of the dramaturgy. Musa Motha particularly impresses as Barney, using the dancer’s crutches both as artistic extensions of his body and as weapons in the gangland wars.

But ultimately, this is a show that, in its insistence on appealing to people who already know and love the TV series, forgets to create an experience befitting the medium it is working in. That’s not good for fans of the show who may be new to dance. And it’s especially poor for those with no experience of Knight’s original TV series – those for whom all the narrative holes in the mess of a story cannot be filled by their own knowledge.

By the end, a voiceover (provided by Benjamin Zephaniah) tells us Thomas Shelby has been redeemed. But from what, and how? It would have been good to know.

Continues until 6 November 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Narrative mess

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