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Beryl by Maxine Peake at the Arcola Theatre | Review

Jessica Duffield, Annie Kirkman (c) Alex Brenner
Jessica Duffield, Annie Kirkman (c) Alex Brenner.

Director Marieke Audsley’s production of the London transfer of Beryl, a two act dramatisation of the true story of British sporting legend Beryl Burton, is so sweet, charming and cheerful that I began to wonder why it’s not a musical. Despite its Yorkshire roots, (it was originally staged at the East Riding Theatre in 2014) or its author (the acclaimed actor and outspoken socialist, Maxine Peake), this four-hander is neither kitchen-sink realist drab nor is it a blistering polemic. It is simply a joyful, uplifting and utterly delightful way to spend the better part of two-hours as winter approaches and macro-political chaos reigns in a divided nation.

With the cast of four multi-rolling and a galloping pace through the remarkable life (58 years’ duration) and sporting career (over 25 years’ duration) of an enthusiast-turned-world-champion – whose record stood unbeaten for 50 years – this production has a festival and slightly fringe sketch-show feel to it in parts, but is squarely in the realm of polished professional theatre. Beryl is not a revolution of dramatic form but its subject, Beryl Burton was nothing less than revolutionary and worthy of interest for everyone. The play’s writing is no unprecedented triumph of prose or poetry; it progresses in a linear fashion and sometimes veers into hagiography and at other times goofs about with meta-theatrical nods and improv-style in-jokes, but the story, with its blend of gags and dramatic moments, is winning and apt. The audience is treated to the occasional nugget of social context: for example, the time-trial event was invented in response to landed gentry opposing working class cyclists exercising on public highways to such an extent that they routinely hounded them with pliant mounted police officers. If you are poised to extract an allegory of the British class system from the story of the evolution of UK cycling with Beryl Burton as its protagonist, you absolutely can. But nothing in this production shoves a moral down your throat.

The cast of four are all energetic troupers who deliver across roles, times and circumstances with unstinting commitment and skill. The net effect is fun and pleasing (although perhaps one topical joke is overplayed just a smidge). With Jessica Duffield taking the role of adult Beryl and Tom Lorcan enacting Beryl’s husband, Charlie, much of the time, these two skilled actors anchor the central drama with strong emotional range and ensure a story, that in less capable hands risks veering into sentimentality, remains credible as warm drama. Annie Kirkman demonstrates impressive range playing the young Beryl and second-generation champion Denise Burton in which she shows us just the right blend of inhabiting the scenes truthfully and not milking the part nor inhibiting the pace. She also must play a range of incidental characters that belong to the more sketch elements of the production and, in these, exhibits even further range thanks to her outstanding comic timing and mimicry. Mark Conway is also called upon to play a cast of characters – many of them deliberately cartoonish, but some of them agents of pathos and driving action – and he too delivers handsomely.

Staged with the audience on risers occupying three sides of the open floor-level stage, lighting is a key feature of Beryl‘s production design. Simon Bedwell does an excellent job integrating with Ed Ullyart’s set with illuminated wall-mounted bicycle wheels serving multiple functions to powerful and clever effect. The mix of pendant lighting and a traditional theatrical rig works and helps shift moods and moments when a more serious energy is required. I do hope, however, that Bedwell takes a second look at the balance of the down-lighting on the characters versus the need to see the rear-wall projections, as the video was unfortunately too washed out to see properly in the first act.

Beryl offers a wonderful blend of inspiration and entertainment in both an accessible and discerning manner. Get on your bike and get to Dalston by 16th November!

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Meet Beryl Burton, the greatest woman on two wheels, in this trailblazing tale from actor and writer Maxine Peake.
Beryl Burton MBE, OBE – twice World Road-race Champion, five times World Pursuit Champion – was never meant to cycle.

Aged 11, a serious illness left her with a weakened heart. Doctors warned against strenuous exercise for the rest of her life.

Aged 30, branded ‘the Yorkshire housewife’ and with no financial sponsorship, she became the first sportswoman in history to break a men’s competitive record.

Featuring a host of unforgettable characters and a great big dollop of Northern wit, Maxine Peake’s freewheeling play is the extraordinary true story of a woman who pushed at the limits, took on the status quo – and won.

The cast features Mark Conway, Jessica Duffield, Annie Kirkman and Tom Lorcan.

Creative Team
Director Marieke Audsley
Set Designer Ed Ullyart
Costume Designer Sylvia Eales
Lighting Designer Simon Bedwell
Assistant Director Roberta Zuric
Producer Sue Kirkman
Thanks to sponsors Wykeland

Arcola Theatre and East Riding Theatre present
Beryl by Maxine Peake
Directed by Marieke Audsley
16 October – 16 November 2019
24 Ashwin Street
London, E8 3DL

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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1 thought on “Beryl by Maxine Peake at the Arcola Theatre | Review”

  1. Tony Hollingworth

    I think your review is spot on. Being a baby boomer and from the Midlands I remember my dad and uncle (both cyclists in their day) talking about Beryl during my teenage years. It was interesting to see the reaction of the audience on the night I went in that many seemed to have no idea of who Beryl was when the subject of her was introduced… I agree with you, it is a cracking night out.

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