When I received the press invite for this, I thought, ‘marketing genius at work’. I could see it immediately. Gorgeous men and women in stylish costumes doing dark and dangerous dancing to a loud music score, sexy as hell and utterly entrancing.
And so it proved. Rambert Dance’s Peaky Blinders is stunning in every sense. And in all the senses. You can even smell the smoke from the trenches.
Steven Knight, who created and wrote the TV series, has created the prequel, Thomas Shelby’s backstory, which begins in the First World War, and takes us up to the moment the TV series begins. And a lot has happened to Tommy in the interim – a journey out of the trenches, through love, death and opium addiction, all brilliantly directed and choreographed by Rambert’s artistic director Benoit Swan Pouffer.
They’ve built a stage on top of The Lowry stage which has, from the stalls, hidden traps and walkways at a lower level, creating the trenches perfectly. I saw Henry V at the Donmar last year, which has scenes depicting the battle of Agincourt, represented by actors in modern battledress doing choreographed movement, but for me the overall effect was trite. Courtesy of TV we all know what real war looks like now, and I wondered if anyone would ever be able to create it convincingly on stage again. Pouffer has done it. The opening trench and battle scenes absolutely capture the horrifying reality of that time.
The show is beautiful to watch, and there is so much going on that it’s difficult to appreciate it all. There’s an international cast of 19 dancers all on stage most of the time, all doing wonderful work and everyone doubling.
It’s great to listen to as well. They are dancing to a live three-piece band playing music by, inter alia, Nick Cave, Radiohead, Wire and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Singer The Last Morrell has an extraordinary voice that you’ll be hearing a lot more of, and he plays guitar and keys. Meanwhile, James Douglas sings and plays cello and bass, and Yaron Engler sings and plays drums and percussion. Together they often sound like 20, and they play throughout this two-hour show.
Finding ways of telling stories has been the Holy Grail of modern dance companies for decades. Somehow the more abstract forms of modern dance don’t lend themselves to storytelling the way classical ballet does. Rambert has done it here by connecting to a known story, and by giving us verbal signposts narrated by writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah (who appears in the TV version of Peaky Blinders). It works a treat.
The other reason I thought ‘marketing genius at work’ was that, if I could see it, so could the millions of fans of the TV show, many of whom will never have been to the ballet before, but will want to come to this. And so it appears to have proved. I can’t see most modern ballet aficionados turning up in Peaky Blinders‘ hats, but the audience at The Lowry was full of them.
You have until Saturday.
Main image by Johan Persson
Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby is showing at The Lowry until March 18, 2023. For more information, click here.