Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Reviewer: Tom Ralphs

Writer: Stephen Knight

Director/Choreographer: Benoit Swan Pouffer

Composer: Roman GianArthur

Until the recent announcement ofBlack Sabbath – The Ballet, one could only have imagined what Tommy Shelby would make of finding his life story turned into the subject of a dance piece. That alternative heroes from Birmingham and the Black Country have suddenly become a rich seam of material for genre bending dance performances is as unlikely as it is intriguing. That said, Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby is deft enough and original enough to rebut any claims that this is sound of a particularly aggressive cow being milked to death.

The script by Stephen Knight draws on all six series of the TV show, but reads like a greatest hits mash-up rather than edited highlights of the six, piecing elements together to create something new from all the parts.

The story begins in the trenches, as smoke spills across the stage and shadows emerge against the dark and sparse background created by set designer Moi Tran. The Shelby brothers, Tommy, Arthur and Jack, are initially fighting the enemy but soon begin to wrestle with the black clad figures that represent the demons that are ever present at their shoulders. All of the men are dead but not dead, alive only on the outside. As Benjamin Zephaniah’s voice cuts into the music and bodies are stabbed and throats are cut, it becomes clear that their battlefield experiences are responsible for casting long shadows over their lives back in Small Heath.

Act 1 moves at a pace, as the Shelby family despatch the corrupt factory bosses and bookmakers that run their hometown and start to take control of their future, taking a place in society that they feel is rightfully theirs after their efforts for their country.

The act is largely an ensemble production even as Grace, the nightclub singer that could be Tommy’s redemption enters the scene. Benoit Swan Pouffer’s choreography makes for a compelling visual spectacle, heightening the sinister undertones of Roman GianArthur’s score, which effortlessly blends new compositions with tracks from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Radiohead, Anna Calvi, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and more. Performed live by The Last Morrell, the soundtrack chooses mood and moodiness rather than songs from the period to create an atmosphere that makes it clear that this is a show about mental turmoil and not something that should be viewed as nostalgia.

Act 2 explores this further, opening with a powerful scene where characters are once more caught between life and death, this time as a result of opioid abuse. The drowsy directionless movement here is a superb counterpoint to the focused aggression of Act 1. Tommy’s hallucinations and imagined futures could be an anti-climax in less capable hands, but instead it is just as intense, if not more so, than what has gone before.

The introspective mood is eventually broken by Adrian Derrick-Palmer’s fight direction in a scene that is as vicious as it is relentless as battles escalate, enemies are cast aside and new foes emerge. It brings everything to a peak, leading Tommy to a place where redemption could be death or life.

With Guillaume Queau giving a superb performance as Thomas Shelby, alongside other standout performances from Naya Lovell as Grace and Simone Damberg Wurtz as Polly, it is impossible not to care about what happens to the titular hero of the show.

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby becomes that rare thing, a story that works in two completely different mediums. The stage show does not need the TV show for it to make sense. The narrative and the movement has everything required for a compelling standalone story.

Thomas Shelby is someone who doesn’t obey rules and doesn’t believe that society has a right to impose any limits on his ambitions. Maybe him being the subject of a Rambert Dance production isn’t such an odd thing after all.

Runs until 4 March 2023 then touring | Image: Johan Persson

The Reviews Hub Score

Peaky play’s a blinder

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The Reviews Hub - Scotland

The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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