If you’re looking to step onto a near-perfect replica of the set of beloved telly drama ‘Peaky Blinders’, then a ticket to ‘Peaky Blinders: The Rise’ might be what you’re after. But, be warned, this is not the Birmingham-based gangster epic that graces our TV screens. With this Peaky purchase comes a large helping of confusion, a lot of aimless walking and too much inaudible and incoherent dialogue.
The Shelby gang has made it to London and is looking to expand its territory from the second city to the capital. There’s a party you’re invited to, a few fights that break out around us, and some scenes you’ll recognise from the show. The end result pays homage to the much-loved series, but as theatre, there is still quite a way to go.
We’re welcomed into a cold, dank room, handed a wad of cash with no clear instructions, and told about crime boss Tommy’s imminent arrival. In groups, we’re shovelled into side areas to find out our next steps. Actors, attempting Brummie accents to varying degrees of success, come and go with various tales and backstories. Actually hearing them, though, is a problem. The layout and acoustics mean voices echo all around us, drowning out what we are actually supposed to be listening to.
Still, the setting is a handsome one. Designed by Rebecca Browner, there’s a fully serving recreation of The Garrison pub, saloon bars where you can sip cocktails and a dramatic entrance from Tommy complete with bright lights and impressive shadows that make quite the spectacle. There’s a compelling, jazzy score by Barnaby Race too. Without direction, though, we quickly bore of taking in the scenery however vivid it may be.
‘What is happening?’ I hear a woman in head-to-toe in ’20s fancy dress say. I feel her bewilderment. In a room crammed full of costumed ticket buyers talking to one another, and comparably few, indistinguishable actors hanging about in the shadows, it falls to you to discover the story hidden within the decorated exteriors. In a desperate attempt to find meaning, I play card games, make a bet, and even speak to an undercover jazz singer to try and get intel. None of this, ultimately, affects the plot or my understanding of it in any way.
For immersive theatre to work, you want to feel part of a story. But in ‘Peaky Blinders: The Rise’, we are barely observers. We can waltz from bar to pub then back to bar again, miss all the action, and the narrative would remain unchanged. There’s always the feeling you may be one room away from the real action.
So, how can you be properly absorbed into a world with no coherent plot to follow? The short answer is: you can’t. A trip to the Shelbys’ world should be rousing and suspenseful. You can have a drink, another one and another one – but they won’t stop this Peaky adventure from being underwhelming.