Theatre Review: Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby at The Alhambra, Bradford

Brashly raising a digit to the traditional notion of theatre being civilised and highbrow, Rambert Dance team up with the writer of Peaky Blinders to create a bold new theatrical extravaganza. A collaboration first conceived after Steven Knight saw a 12-minute dance piece created for the first Peaky Blinders’ festival. Awakened to the potency of dance, Knight commissioned Rambert’s Artistic Director, Benoit Swan Pouffer, to choreograph a segment of Swan Lake for inclusion in series five. Several years on, a new partnership formed and covid restrictions finally lifted, resulting in the show’s premiere in Birmingham last autumn.

Billed as a prequel to the show, The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, uses little from the six series and opens with Tommy tunnelling under No Man’s Land with pals. Composer Roman Gianarthur’s original score is suitably menacing and made all the more powerful by volume and the presence of a live band on stage (Yaron Engler, James Douglas and The Last Morrell). Franck Carter & The Rattlesnakes’ “There’s a Devil Inside Me” moves from stealth to combat as dancers manically attack, helicopter arms wildly lashing out.

Series regular Benjamin Zephaniah (Jeremiah on the screen) features in poetic voice-overs, introducing main characters and providing occasional narration. The inclusion of a narrator undermines Pouffer’s company, suggesting his choreography alone lacks the clarity to capture Tommy’s story. From Zephaniah’s earliest fragment we learn Tommy and his fellow fighters are “Dead inside… [their] humanity bled out into the snow” – an admission, quickly confirmed by a fluid set change to the Birmingham steel works where rape is the norm. Here, a particularly impressive all-female dance celebrates the emerging strength of women during the war years.

The Peaky theme tune (Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”) is a nod to the original TV series, as is the addition of soundbites of key cast from the show. Unfortunately, neither are likely to be enough to win over fans. As the name suggests, there is much more of a focus here on Tommy’s story than the other characters and even here, there is little characterisation. While both Joseph Kudra as Tommy and Simone Damberg Worz as Polly resemble their characters, they are both mere caricatures. Other iconic leads are barely touched upon with a particularly disappointing Ada (Cali Hollister) and Arthur (Dylan Tedaldi) - the material more likely at fault than the dancers. Grace (Seren Williams) and Tommy’s courting song is very sexualised but the first act speeds through the story so quickly, the bond between Grace and Tommy is wholly unconvincing.

Though the choreography of fight scenes is inventive and includes effective slo-mo, it’s too messy and without any realism or characterisation, it’s difficult to sustain interest, despite show antagonists like Changretta making an appearance. More captivating sequences include at the race track with carousel horses; an overly drawn-out otherworldly opium scene with accompanying prog soundtrack; a moving and nightmarish solo dance courtesy of Kudra and dancers in chains playing police dogs handled by law enforcers. “Bad Habits” by The Last Shadow Puppets is an emotionally charged dance but facial expressions sadly don’t connect.

Richard Gellar’s exquisite costumes and Moi Tran’s set design combined are a visual feast, including pyrotechnics and impressive attention to detail but neither are enough to ensure the show lives up to the hype. Too disjoined and lacking much of the series’ original fury with lame final narration, the show’s real star is Gianarthur’s sleazy brooding score and the band bringing it to life. If anything lingers, it’s this haunting soundtrack.