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Peaky Blinders : The Redemption of Thomas Shelby – Birmingham Hippodrome

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Music: Roman GianArthur and Nate Wonder

Writer: Steven Knight CBE

Director and choreographer: Benoit Swan Pouffer

Strictly meets post WW1 Brummie street-crime with full-on, lock, stock, two-barreled, ‘This is our Zone Boys!’ braggadocio. Meet the mean, cobbled-lane slum Digbeth dudes in de rigour flat-caps. Rambert just licks up this sort of challenge for breakfast and then raids the Rag Market for costume inspiration after a light lunch of distilled shooting-star spangled dancing dust. Derby hats are worn by the chain-slaver factory bosses who are about to experience an extreme change of management.

For the Rambert renowned ballistic-balletic aesthetic, this gig presents an intriguing conundrum. How to dance-match the eponymous smash-hit TV series? The innovative weapon of choice being a flat-cap pimped with sewn-in concealed razor blades, were a Peaky to doff his cap, it certainly wouldn’t be out of deference. A sort of proto-Brummie bowler hat nudge to Ian Fleming’s Oddjob.

Appropriate then that the Rambert collective return to the Brum motherlode (in close collaboration with the Birmingham Hippodrome) of inspiration – and better get it right, there’s a thirty-foot powered-up, exoskeletal Bull on the loose wanting a winter refuge – and he’s not happy – especially with these cocky out-of-towners. But they come up good alright.

Writer Stephen Knight has to condense a familiar story arc for those of a Peaky persuasion into a two-act convincing dance construct. Benoit Swan Pouffer as Director/Choreographer has a job on his hands – the Rambert are a legendary, rebellious, frisky lot and need a firm hand. His take on diplomacy and direction is to absolutely let the dancers have his own way. Result. Composer and Music Supervisor, Roman GianArthur has a monumental challenge to coalesce his original score, together with fractal, fractured sound sculptures and a live Rock combo of astronomic grit. The ubiquitous tolling-bell signature song, Red Right Hand, from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, as a narrative through-line, together with Frank Carter and The Rattlesnakes – anyone? seems perfectly apposite. Add some Laura Mvula/Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and it’s about to get kicking – several feet in the air and then some.

Act 1 follows a linear timeline narrative establishing the Shelby boys consumed by the grotesque carnage of WW1 trench warfare, with some canny minimalist stage constructs from set designer, Moi Tran and her team. Natasha Chivers’ lighting design laughs at those supposed CGI wizards still struggling with the misconception that theatre light lacks a multi-dimensional, plasticity of space and sheer, audacious brio. The rise and gangland expansion of the Shelby brand explodes with surreal exposition when they announce their Under New Management Nightclub venture. A set-piece of incredible verve, sleaze and brooding menace.

The fruits of Tommy’s money-to-throw-away ascendancy have him stripped to his ‘smalls’ at the tailors. Inside many a head an imaginary Tannoy announces, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Adonis is now in the building!’ There are palpable pockets of primal-sigh surrender, some women faint, even more men tremble. The connection is made. This ensemble clearly has implant spines of rubber and Teflon-coated muscle sinew. They laugh at gravity, take three-dimensional movement as a starting point, back bending pliant as otters in olive oil, rollercoasters whipping inside a Mobius-strip of infinite motion. Payback time for the Shelbys is revenge tasted cold. Gangland Spoiler alert – Tommy’s Blood Wedding (Game of Thrones drones just behave) does what it says on the barrel. Tommy’s destroyed. Blackout.

Act 2 opens with Tommy’s surreal opium den descent into grief-denial addiction. The set design boasts a military-style field hospital with a regimented series of neon-strip-lit beds. Sprawled NAAFI issue blankets cover the iron-framed beds as if suggestive sarcophagus lids. The ‘Smoking Dragon’ breathes its pernicious, taloned horror.

Spellbinding though this set-piece is, and there are some equally remarkable, the point is taken, absorbed and processed with relish. It has worthy precedents, not least Coppola’s real whiskey-induced drunken mirror smashing Martin Sheen’s mayhem in Apocalypse Now. The denial of the truth’s reflection not lost on those catching Tommy studiously avoiding the opaque, shimmering metallic surface meandering in and out of the austere set design used to maximum spatial effect. There’s a niggling sense that the point being made, it’s time to move on.

A shower Poppy Euphoria marks Tommy’s catharsis as the ghost of Grace visits him for the last time. The climactic Battle of Charlie’s Yard is a set-piece worthy of West Side Story meets Kurosawa. Just watch out for the spandex-brown police-dogs tableau. Astonishing. Redemption comes at last for Tommy. Brum’s thirty-foot Bull is assuaged. Rock on Tommy. Saltation in space with booster boots, Ballet Rambert begs the question: is God missing some Angels?

Runs Until 2 October 2022 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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