DanceNorth East & YorkshireReview

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby – Alhambra Theatre, Bradford

Reviewer: Ruth Jepson

Writer: Steven Knight CBE

Choreographer: Benoit Swan Pouffer

Composer: Roman GianArthur

Peaky Blinders in pointe shoes was likely not on many people’s 2023 Bingo Card, but Rambert Dance have brought this strange concept to reality in Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby. It’s even written by the original creator Steven Knight, meaning that fans of the critically acclaimed TV show don’t have to worry about what might be lost in translation; and newcomers can head home after a solid introduction to catch up on the rest of the story, should the ballet leave them wanting more. The tale told here is a truncation of the TV series, although the main story beats are covered. Some characters also differ slightly to their on-screen counterparts (Grace for example being a night club singer rather than a barmaid), so long time fans can appreciate a fresh perspective, while the uninitiated don’t have to binge watch six seasons worth of episodes during the interval in order to follow what is going on.

The show opens in Flanders Field, with a scene of beautifully evocative and terrible World War One trench warfare, and moves on to post-war Birmingham and the trials and tribulations of the Shelby family, money launders, gambling fixers and small time gangsters. Titular Thomas (aka Tommy, danced this performance by Joseph Kudra) finds himself infatuated with mysterious newcomer Grace (Seren Williams) who may not be all she seems. Journey with them through gun smoke and opium fumes as their romance progresses against a backdrop of violence and betrayal. And if audiences struggle to work out the story from the choreography, poet Benjamin Zephaniah provides wonderful pre-recorded narration throughout. Less helpful are the snippets of dialogue from the TV series, which are distorted and garbled to within an inch of discernability and might as well just have been done away with.

Benoit Swan Pouffer’s choreography is sublime, and it is wonderful to see the genderfluid, race inclusive and disability representative casting (no quarters are given for Musa Motha, dancing Jeremiah, despite his left leg amputation, and clearly none are needed either – how nice it is to see a character whose disability is just another aspect of their personhood, rather than their entire story). The first act is a smorgasbord of action and splendour, pacy and enthralling, with dancers popping up and down as machines, dogs, gamblers, gangsters and nightclub patrons from Moi Tran’s intriguing multi-level set of a large stage filling platform, which does unfortunately have the unintended side effect of slightly restricting the view of some in the stalls (this might be an occasion where the cheap seats have an advantage). Sadly, the second act detours into the Opium Dens, which, while still beautiful, becomes rather slow and self-indulgent, and by the time the ensemble are dancing around in nappies there is a slight worry that it’s all gone wrong. Thankfully the show remembers it’s hanging plot eventually and the finale quickly ramps back up to a satisfying final tableau.

Contemporary dance in recent years has gone from strength to strength, with bold new stories attracting a diverse and oft unexpected audience. Adapting media such as Peaky Blinders into the dance format allows for an almost surreal experience, an exploration of oft quite dark and traumatic scenarios in a light and lovely way, a juxtaposition that fits perfectly for this story especially. The use of contemporary music gives the show an accessible feel, making it less scary for those not as au fait with movement-based shows, while being a refreshing change for the old hats looking for a bit more excitement from their dance companies. What Rambert Dance have created here is a gorgeous but grim look into the seedy underworld of post war Britain, full of the disenfranchised and unappreciated, the undercover and the secretive, and the ultimate hope of love even as things fall apart. It’s certainly worth checking out, by order of the Peaky Blinders.

Runs until Saturday 28 January 2023.

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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