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BrumHour saw Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby at the invite of Birmingham Hippodrome.
By Duncan Walker
Review: Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby at Birmingham Hippodrome
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐A true masterpiece of contemporary choreography
Director/choreography by Benoit Swan Pouffer, written by Steven Knight
Rambert Dance is quoted as being Britain’s oldest dance company, created in 1926 by founder Marie Rambert, a Polish emigrant and former Ballet Russes dancer, who found herself in London after fleeing the outbreak of World War One. Marie started tutoring to earn a living, which developed into a ballet company, with notable students such as Frederick Ashton. The company toured extensively during World War Two and experienced several changes both in structure and dance style, being influenced by such people as Martha Graham on a visit to America and later by choreographers such as Christopher Bruce, Robert North and Richard Alston.
Rambert are a powerhouse of dance history, built on an unshakable foundation of priceless experience; so to be sat in a theatre about to watch this company perform a piece based on a global TV phenomenon and written by Steven Knight, you can’t fail to feel the anticipation of something spectacular about to happen.
I’m probably one of those rare individuals on the planet that hasn’t seen Peaky Blinders the series. Granted, the enormous success of the show means that I have heard many things about it over the years, but I was probably one of the few people in the audience that didn’t have any preconceptions about the content behind the performance.
As the curtain lifts, you’re presented with a very simple stage, not even a stage set, more a lifted section on top of the standard stage. All becomes apparent when the haunting melody of a single cello from the onstage band stops and characters start to appear from inside the elevated section. The scene is clearly set by wonderfully designed lighting, which frames and defines both emotion and space throughout the performance. The lighting becomes the stage set in a sense, allowing the dancers freedom to perform.
We are transported to the trenches of the First World War, brought to life and supported by the dancers’ effortless but contorted motions, the music changes to a heavy, gut-wrenching indie/rock piece. Initially, you may think it wouldn’t fit with the time period, but it adds a layer of gritty realism that a modern-day audience can relate to and be drawn in by.
A portrayal of the horrors of war follows, out of which five men survive, but later we learn that survival has left its mark on each man, especially Thomas Shelby, danced by Guillaume Quéau. Quéau has both an imposing stature and talent to match, he’s the perfect Tommy Shelby, confident, fearless and ruthless. His abilities as a soloist and in a duet with Naya Lovell, who dances Tommy’s love interest, Grace, is absolute perfection. It’s safe to say that the whole ensemble is equally talented, possessing an agility and physical timing that I’ve not seen in many years and only from world-class dancers.
The first half leads the audience through the end of the war, on to civilian life where the brothers must make a living, scared by the darkness of the fighting, it’s seen that any job will suffice even that of a criminal nature. Lifestyles change and we see the brothers grow from common criminals to well-established and wealthy individuals, where anything goes. But with this comes conflict from others who want the same thing, leading them to gang violence, back once again to the symbolism of war.
Act one has, what seems like a complex choreographed, multi-dancer piece, but wait until the second half as you’ll see a mind-bending dance sequence that involves the whole company as all out gang warfare ensues, on different levels, across the whole stage; a true masterpiece of contemporary choreography.
The first half ends with a jarring loss, after a rollercoaster of emotions, from fear to love, betrayal and then what seems like a perfect moment of happiness, shattered by the actions of one man.
One addition to the performance not to be overlooked is the voice of well-known poet, Benjamin Zephaniah. Zephaniah adds clarity to parts, where the fluid, brutality of movement may not always portray the complex feelings of a character. He is often the inner dialogue of Tommy Shelby, his conscience almost. Zephaniah’s calming tones are a great contrast against a background of conflict and chaos, leaving you with questions about morality and life.
The second half is grounded in a more surreal environment as we see Tommy sinking deep into depression over his loss. The opium den section is a wonderfully moody and grim representation of absolute despair, with subtle lighting and disorientating music. Some parts of the performance are danced as if in slow motion to emphasise an emotion or mood, the sheer power and strength of the dancers become all the more noticeable in these sections as they slowly move from one position to the next without faltering or noticeable exertion.
While it is difficult to single out performers, I must comment on Musa Motha, who dances Barney. Referred to in an interview as “differently-abled,” Motha dances with only one leg and is supported by one or two crutches depending on the dance. Initially, you notice it, but as the performance progresses you see a man who dances like any other and has a unique talent of his own. The training and perseverance that must have gone into his art is inspirational.
It’s a difficult show to review – words can’t do it credit and you need to experience it to understand the emotion and energy that go into and come out of the performance. Even if you’re not a die-hard dance enthusiast, you can’t fail to feel something for the characters portrayed in the show, you love and hate them, empathise and fear them, and if you’re a Peaky Blinders fan, you cheer for them, as a lot of the audience did throughout the performance. Through all the conflict you want to see some form of happiness, with this show all emotions are covered – it’s like a lifetime in two hours.
The stage band were superb, masters of both classical and modern instruments, somehow managing to make it sound like a whole orchestra in some parts and raising the roof in others as if at an outdoor concert; but it all fit with the storyline, which was cleverly woven together and for Peaky Blinders, fans will add some insight into characters that they may not have seen in the TV series.
Possibly not a whole family show, it does come with an advisory 15+ age limit, mainly because of some subjects covered and the realism in parts like the opening World War One section. The show is an absolute must-see.
I’m now contemplating actually watching the TV series.
Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby is at Birmingham Hippodrome until Sunday 2nd October 2022 and returns 23rd to 27th May 2023. Book tickets here: birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/peaky-blinders-the-redemptio