Rambert Dance in Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby Hull – Review – Hull New Theatre
By Rachel Howard, February 2023
The title alone seems like an oxymoron… Rambert Dance is Britain’s oldest dance company and has its roots firmly in ballet and classical dance. Peaky Blinders is the hit tv show that follows the gritty, and often graphic, exploits of a Birmingham-based crime gang in the years following the First World War. Not exactly the most obvious choice for a stage partnership, but can they be successfully merged to create an entertaining evening at the theatre? I pay a visit to Hull New Theatre to find out.
Thirty seconds into the first half and I can confirm that yes, this is going to be one heck of a show.
The curtain opens to the dramatic scene of five young men fighting for King and country in the trenches, very soon to realise that although they have lived to tell the tale, the experience of war has left them dead inside – and so begins the very raw, emotive and harrowing tale of the Shelby family.
You don’t need to have been an avid fan of the show to follow the story. The former soldiers return home to post-war Birmingham and very soon find themselves in the heart of the criminal underworld, doing whatever they can to not only survive, but make it to the top of the gangland hierarchy. Overseen by the formidable Aunt Polly, the Shelby boys ride a rollercoaster of crime, life, death, heartache, drugs and mental struggles – all portrayed passionately and with the utmost skill by the Rambert performers, and narrated by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah. Fans of Peaky Blinders will remember him in the role of Jeremiah across all six seasons of the show.
Taking on the main role of Thomas Shelby is Guillaume Quéau. He struts around the stage with that all-too-familiar Shelby confidence, but is very quick to show us his broken and vulnerable side, particularly when falling deeply in love with the beautiful and mysterious Grace, played by the spellbinding Aishwarya Raut. The chemistry between the two is palpable and is only heightened by witnessing their bodies skilfully intertwine around each other, performing a combination of contemporary and classical dance moves that so beautifully showcase the passion and love between them – only equalled by heart-wrenching grief later on in the first half.
It’s almost impossible to pick out standout characters from this production due to the wildly impressive cast on stage, but special mention must be given to Musa Motha, who plays Barney. Musa is an amputee dancer who flies around the stage almost as if by magic. I find myself mesmerised by his skill, strength and flexibility. To be able to dance to this level is something almost spiritual, but to do it as an amputee is just astonishing. I could watch him dance all day long. Simone Damberg Würtz takes on the role of Aunt Polly with more than a passing resemblance to Helen McCrory (the original Polly, who sadly died in 2021). The matriarch of the family, she loves and protects her boys fiercely, but has her own demons to battle. Being able to portray these character traits through dance alone is a real gift and makes for an absorbing watch.
Joining forces with the dancers are the other stars of this scintillating show – the musicians. It is a joy to have a live band on stage throughout the production, discreetly placed in the background of every scene to as not to overshadow the story. Yaron Engler, James Douglas and The Last Morrell are top class, blasting out tracks from the likes of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (‘Red Right Hand’, the hauntingly brilliant theme to Peaky Blinders), Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Laura Mvula and The Last Shadow Puppets. Unlike many shows, the music does not play second fiddle to the actors – they work together so seamlessly that they appear as one formidable force.
As a touring production, you would forgive them if the scenery was a little basic, but yet again, this show goes to another level. The clever use of lighting, smoke, sparks, fire, dark and light fuse together to form an atmospheric spectacle that would be worthy of the West End or Broadway. The first three scenes of the second half depict “The Madness of Grief”, “Opium Eaters” and “Smoking Dragons”. Light and shade, smoke and the human body come together to portray the impact of drugs, heartache, grief and the aftermath of war on the mind and body. These scenes have my eyes locked to the stage, it is spine-tingling stuff.
The full cast gathering on stage at the climax of the show, performing to ‘Red Right Hand’, sends us, their captive audience, to our feet for a standing ovation that’s perhaps more deserved than any other I have been part of.
This isn’t a tame show on any level, the music is loud, the storyline graphic, the performances breathtaking, I’m not sure I’ll ever see a show like it again. Bravo Rambert; Bravo Peaky Blinders.
By order of your audience, please return soon…