BWW Review: BERYL, Arcola Theatre
The winner of over 90 domestic championships and seven national titles alongside setting a slew of records, Beryl Burton was one of England's most successful cyclists. With a career that started in the late 1950s and that continued into the 1980s, the dedication and strength of "the Yorkshire housewife" certainly represented the grit and determination associated with the North.
Why, then, do we know so little about Burton today? Following a run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2015 and now at the Arcola Theatre, Maxine Peake's Beryl seeks to tell the story of Burton's life, tracing her achievements over an ample 110 minutes.
This revisionist intent is clear from the opening, when the characters speak to the audience and tell them that this play will write Beryl's story. The work begins with Beryl aged 11 being diagnosed with a weakened heart and consequently warned against all strenuous exercise. In spite of this, she goes on to compete both nationally and internationally well into her forties.
It would be doing Peake's writing and Marieke Audsley's direction a disservice to call this an underdog story. Yes, Beryl had to fight against the pressures of being a woman in the 1950s and her lower-class background posed some economic problems when trying to not only fund but also simply get to competitions, yet the radiating spirit of the show removes it from any Hollywood clichés.
The quartet of performers - Jessica Duffield, Annie Kirkman, Tom Lorcan and Mark Conway - all bring great determination and energy to their roles. Together, and with an innumerable number of props, they populate Beryl's life with policemen, doctors, fellow biking competitors and numerous other individuals, often changing accents seamlessly. Playing Beryl for the majority of the piece, Duffield does a good job, though it was Kirkman who steals the show with her comedic range.
The four actors all at various points jump onto bikes in the middle of the stage and cycle, and the physical fitness demonstrated was certainly impressive (they'll all no doubt have calves of steel by the end of the run). Peake's writing is full of funny and caring moments, which are all realised by the cast with dedication.
Whichever roles the actors play they wear lycra, a neat suggestion of how for Beryl cycling was literally her life. Ed Ullyart's set focuses on the aforementioned bikes and wheels of various sizes adorn the back wall (which are in turn atmospherically lit by Simon Bedwell).
For the most part, the play's meta-theatrical element is handled well, with characters coming out of the scene to explain cycling terms or the different categories of competitions. Yet, there are a few moments when these could be cut. Digressions on rhubarb or a few gratuitous jokes about Brexit being the cause of all production problems take away from the play's sincere depiction of Beryl's life.
Just as Beryl was determined to battle through her restraints, these actors all handle these interruptions with verve. To some extent they complement the play's Northern openness, but I had to agree with one actor when he said, "let's get back to Beryl".
But it is impossible to puncture the play's warmth: from the narration's canny tone to the birth of Beryl's daughter Denise being represented by a baby doll with a cycling helmet, there's so much to enjoy about this show. Beryl ensures audiences are holding on tight to the handlebars before rushing off with zeal into the life of a woman who deserves to be better known. Despite a few wobbles, it hardly puts on the brakes, ensuring the audience is carried through an evening of laughter and sincerity.
Photograph credit: Alex Brenner