Long coats, floppy flat caps, watch chains, sharp suits and starched collars – in the ten years since its first airing, Peaky Blinders, has grown beyond a TV show to become a fashion iconography. All of which is front and centre in the design of Rambert Dance’s choreographic realisation of the Thomas Shelby story and provides an immediate and distinct unifying visual signature.
Beyond this, the dancers’ movements catch the show’s violent aesthetic, serving narrowboat loads of macho swagger: men constantly flexing and clicking their joints in readiness for the next pugilistic bout and, of course, the actual fist, boot and cap-swinging action itself.
Initially this all seems very cool and then a bit samey, and it could become a little wearing. Fortunately, the production is punctuated with big set pieces that mixes up the colours of the chorographic palette. A lush party scene, full of decadent, thoroughly queer, between-the-wars detail, which fuses early jazz and contemporary dance moves to stylish effect. A tragicomic horse racing scene, where fairground horses stand in for the real thing. Visually stunning. This has men literally betting the shirts on their backs and walking away in underwear. And then, a delicate pas de deux provides a mask for cynicism and duplicity.
The show looks great and is positively crowded with imaginative design, and fresh, engaging dance energy. There is a problem at its heart, however: why should we care about any of the deeply unlikable characters on display? Perhaps those who know the TV show can superimpose their knowledge of it onto this stage version? For those unfamiliar, sympathetic engagement with this crew of borderline psychopaths is a bit of a stretch.
The show is, perhaps, rather over-long. However, the sheer genius of the acting, choreography, set design, directing, lighting, (mostly) live music & sound, and production values places this ballet as a crowning achievement for Ballet Rambert. For details of the (huge!) cast and creatives, scan the QR code in the picture, above.
The show also makes a big attempt to mythologize things. A portentous voice-over from Birmingham poet Benjamin Zephaniah keeps telling us ‘And so it came to pass…’ as though we are in the middle of some sort of sword-and-sandal epic. The programme notes describe the second act as ‘Thomas Shelby in the Underworld.’ If this reference to Orpheus here isn’t strong enough, the depiction of Thomas’ opium hell – and opium highs – draws clearly on Orpheus’s descent into Hades and sojourn in the Elysian Fields as represented in Gluck’s opera on the subject.
However, the Shelbys are not mythical Demi-Gods. They’re just a family of exceptionally violent robber barons so, at the end of the day, we are left with the triumph of style over substance. However, the style is so very stylish that it’s a pretty spectacular triumph.
David Gray & Paul Gray are Reviewers for Birmingham, West Midlands and the Three Choirs Festival. If you would like David & Paul to come review for you, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org