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Dressed to Kill

It’s about style. Yes, it’s about men, it’s about men after war, it’s about Birmingham, it’s about working-class identity. But “Peaky Blinders” is also about style. It’s a slow-motion prowl under the metal beams of a hot spitting factory, a cocksure gaze beneath a flat cap, with long coats flapping and the orange stab from a lit cigarette.

Performance

Rambert perform “Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby”

Place

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland, March 1, 2023

Words

Róisín O'Brien

Rambert perform “Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby.” Photograph by Johan Persson

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“Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby” is an astute bit of programming from Rambert, tapping into the hugely popular TV series created by Steven Knight. Danced by Rambert’s technically dexterous company, the work is written by Knight, choreographed and directed by Rambert’s artistic director Benoit Swan Pouffer, with composition from Roman GianArthur. The show features a stunning set from Moi Tran, that takes full advantage of budget and space within Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre by creating a raised central platform with a perilous walkway around the edge that the dancers fall in and jump out of throughout the performance.

Rambert perform “Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby.” Photograph by Johan Persson

What’s interesting is that this two-act performance arrives at somewhere like a traditional narrative ballet. While some repertoire companies may try injecting a classic tale with modern sensibilities, this has started from the opposite end. “The Redemption of Thomas Shelby” begins with the central male characters’ time in the trenches and follows how they not only navigate but take over the streets of Birmingham when they return home, moving breathlessly between street fights, seductive nightlife, and the fog of opium addiction.

The narrative is propelled inevitably forward by the drone of the live guitar and a residual, pounding drum beat. A voiceover from poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who features in the TV series, adds select place holders that mostly successfully navigate the action, allowing the choreography to articulate emotion and relationships rather than plot.

Rambert perform “Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby.” Photograph by Johan Persson

A first restrained opening dance to the series’ theme song “Red Right Hand” (by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds) even recalls some of the weighty yet precise choreography of Kenneth MacMillan’s Dance of the Knights in his “Romeo and Juliet.” If the second half both falters and indulges in more scenic sections (Natasha Chivers’ gorgeously purple-lit opium scenes are a highlight), the narrative structure nonetheless succeeds in guiding the audience through the busy world of the production.

Rambert perform “Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby.” Photograph by Johan Persson

The Rambert dancers throw everything into their characters, moving between portraying machinery, police dogs, entertainers, and gangsters with ease. The main cast embody their film counterparts with different levels of similarity. Tommy as performed by Guillaume Quéau is a strong, towering presence, while Arthur as performed by Dylan Tedaldi retains a manic scrawniness and always present split-second violence. Simone Damberg Würtz’s Polly is both commanding and secondary, as in the show. At one point, she and Ada revive Tommy in a somewhat sacrificial moment: sure, he’s in charge, but he’s put there because of some greater scheming effected by Polly.

Rambert perform “Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby.” Photograph by Johan Persson

With the word ‘redemption’ in the title, audiences can guess where the piece might end up. The cessation of violence feels slightly more like a narrative necessity than a through line from earlier scenes. Dancers watching in the audience might want more developed choreography, or at least more space to see it. And, as in the TV series, we come back to that question of style: the idea of Peaky Blinders is sometimes more powerful than the Peaky Blinders themselves.

The company are fantastic. The live music is energizing. And the seats are full, something that’s not guaranteed in Scottish theatre at the moment. Keep ‘em coming.

Róisín O'Brien


Róisín is a dance artist and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She regularly writes for Springback Magazine, The Skinny and Seeing Dance, and has contributed to The Guardian and Film Stories. She loves being in the studio working on a new choreography with a group of dancers, or talking to brilliant people in the dance world about their projects and opinions. She tries not to spend too much time obsessing over Crystal Pite.

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