Review: Rambert Dance’s Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

Review: Rambert Dance’s Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

by Joy McKay.

I’ve been a fan of the Rambert dance company and their future-feeling take on contemporary ballet since I was a teenager in the 90s studying the choreography of Christopher Bruce and Richard Alston. I never miss a show when Rambert come to Southampton but when I heard the latest tour was a production based on the TV series Peaky Blinders, I’ll admit I was both reticent and confused.

The show is described as a ‘Dance Theatre Event’ and is intended to be a deep delve into the story the main protagonist Tommy Shelby. Written by Steven Knight the creator of the TV show he says he includes insights into the plot and characters which, whilst he didn’t include in the original story, he had always had in mind for Tommy and co. This production combines contemporary dance, live music, popular music tracks (as featured in the TV show) as well as pre-recorded narration from performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah – a device which aims to move the story onward and make dance more accessible.

Peaky Blinders – The Redemption of Thomas Shelby is choreographed by Rambert’s Artistic Director Benoit Swan Pouffe and features a specially commissioned score by Roman GianArthur. It had its premiere in London last year followed by sell-out performances in the Shelby families’ hometown of Birmingham, but we are lucky to be able to welcome the show to The Mayflower Southampton as the first stop in a national tour. 

The staging is simple throughout, consisting of a black stage and backdrop with a raised platform in the centre. This was divided in the middle creating a ditch into which the dancers could move in and out of often adding to the sense of travel through the story. The rear of the stage raised and lowered to reveal entries and exits for the ensemble or a variety of lighting rigs. The band consisting of percussionist Yaron Engler, bass and celloist James Douglas and lead guitarist The Last Morrell remained on the stage throughout and were incredible. I wasn’t expecting the original score to be very loud rock music with wailing guitars but it was a surprise I enjoyed. 

Principals were Guillaume Quéau playing Tommy and Naya Lovell playing Grace Burgess. Whilst Quéau’s pieces were very identifiably Tommy, or at least a Peaky Blinder, Lovell’s were much more sultry than you would have associated with Grace if you know her from the TV series. Saying that however her performance was beautiful and I would have liked to see more of her in story. The same can be said of Polly played by Simone Damberg Wutrz. Such a force in the original story she did not have the amount of stage time I would have expected. The stand out performer for me has to be Musa Motha playing Barney who had such incredible swagger in the first half and a moving and physically impressive duet with Tommy in the second half. 

I did watch the first season of the show beforehand, just to make sure I knew what was happening but honestly, it wasn’t necessary. Knight’s script, expertly delivered by Zephaniah, I didn’t feel was necessary either but if it makes the opportunity of enjoying dance available to more people it did so without intruding into the theatre experience, although I found it difficult to hear the narration at times over the guitar. 

Whether you’re a Peaky Blinders fan who has never experienced modern dance, a dance enthusiast who hasn’t watched the TV show or maybe somewhere in-between this production is certainly a new experience. It didn’t give me any greater knowledge of the life of Tommy and perhaps would be better pitched as the story of another incidental character to the show. I also missed the stories of the women. As mentioned, Polly’s role was less significant than I had anticipated and Ada’s role is even less. It’s impossible not to compare to the TV series and in it the Shelby women are so important that their characters seemed to be missing. But it was spectacular,  Rambert’s contemporary and athletic style shined through. I’ll never be able to hear Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds again without visualising the entire company moving on stage in perfect unison. I hope this was the first experience of contemporary dance for many members of the audience. With many people (including us) in suitable Peaky Blinders attire and an opening night standing ovation the performance will be memorable. 

So does a ‘Dance Theatre Event’ best describe the experience? I think it does. The only thing I can compare the show to is Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds; what that is to Musical Theatre this is to Dance Theatre. 

You can catch Rambert Dance in Peaky Blinders – The Redemption of Tommy Shelby at The Mayflower Theatre Southampton until the 11th February. 


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