Have we reached peak Peaky fever? Hot on the heels of the Peaky Blinders immersive experience comes Peaky Blinders the dance show, performed by Rambert, who appeared in the show’s fifth series. It’s created by the company’s artistic director Benoit Swan Pouffer alongside the TV show’s originator Steven Knight. This is not an exact retelling of the TV series, but a sort of prequel that merges into Tommy Shelby’s love affair with Grace Burgess and his descent into opium-fuelled despair. It certainly captures the bleak, menacing mood of what is in many ways a very theatrical piece of television: darkness, smoke, violence and driving music by American composer Roman GianArthur, sprinkled with Radiohead, Anna Calvi, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Nick Cave. GianArthur picks up threads from these bands in thrashing riffs and haunting vocals performed by Yorkshire songwriter The Last Morrell.
When Pouffer took over Rambert in 2018 he talked of change, diversity and seeking new audiences, as many directors do, but more than most he’s actually achieved it. Whether that’s gender fluid casting, integrating the wildly impressive amputee dancer Musa Motha, or mounting an idea as unashamedly populist as a TV-inspired show. In the way the series uses anachronistic music to heighten drama, Pouffer’s dance follows suit. The choreography has a commercial edge, drawing on street styles, and excels in blistering ensemble dances, punchy moves with bodies flying, flinging and sliding across the stage. The dancers come out all guns blazing (and knives, and razor blades), in rollicking brawls where bodies stab and lurch, full of swagger and attitude.
The set, by Moi Tran, has the dancers on a raised platform (and the musicians raised again behind that) expanding the possibilities of the stage, but cutting off the dancers’ legs for people right at the front, which is an oversight. The scene at the races could be a pop concert set, with fairground lights and carousel horses, and costume designer Richard Gellar has gone to town on a 1920s look of glamour and grit.
These are not carbon copies of the television characters – although Simone Damberg Würtz is an appropriately fearsome Aunt Polly. Rather than a barmaid who croons Irish folk songs, this Grace (Naya Lovell) is a fierce nightclub singer who arrives in green velvet, lip-syncing to Laura Mvula. Part of what makes Tommy Shelby so compelling on screen is his inscrutability, the camera’s close-up ability to search for what’s behind the eyes. There’s no chance for that in a 2,000-seater theatre. It has to be big. So Guillaume Quéau’s Tommy is altogether more performative and knowingly buff, his dance of grief comes with lots of splits, for example.
While the first act packs in energetic impact scene after scene, on the emotional front this show is less effective. Tommy and Grace’s wedding comes a bit out of nowhere, without digging into their relationship. And the second half loses momentum (that’s what opioids will do for you). It’s clear what we’re supposed to feel, but does the drama trigger those feelings? Your investment in the original show may colour your responses. Disclaimer: I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, still it was clear enough what was going on and a voiceover by Benjamin Zephaniah frames the story.
The show has its faults but when it’s good it’s very good. A flawed four-stars for moxie and ambition.