I was totally drawn to this play because of a combination of two formidable women. Beryl is written by the brilliant actor Maxine Peake and the subject is, and I now know to what extent, another absolute force of northern nature: the fearless cyclist Beryl Burton. I’m going to try and reign in too many cycling puns but if I do feel one racing in to view, I will of course try to pull on the brakes and dismount immediately.
Starting in humble beginnings, young Burton’s (Annie Kirkman) first dramatic moment comes during the 11+ exam when she takes ill. Diagnosed with a weak heart and told to avoid anything remotely strenuous, a fire starts to burn in Beryl’s belly. It’s a spark which gives this rebel girl the drive to prove them all wrong, to make her mark. The journey is fraught with challenges and results in many, many firsts for Beryl, women and cycling. Beryl is firm in her belief that “Anything the lads can do, I can do.”
The play’s first incarnation was on Radio 4 in 2012 and by 2014 Peake had adapted it for stage, marking her stage-writing début at its world première at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I’m delighted that the London transfer, presented by East Riding Theatre, has taken me back to the Arcola, an absolute gem nestled in the bustle of E8. The exceptional director Marieke Audsley sums up the whole feel of the playful storytelling when she rightfully credits Peake’s writing as clearly showing her comprehension of the playfulness of the rehearsal process and the versatility of the actors. The task Audsley has as the director is huge but it’s a great success. The four supremely comically skilled actors play multiple roles, sometimes with a costume change for a single line and occasionally done at a break-neck speed. Tom Lorcan and Mark Conway are funny and engaging in their many roles. Conway’s physical comedy is wildly applauded, and his mid-air splits are rather special. Four fixed bikes adorn the stage for some full-on race scenes (or hoovered under at one point as if they were an occasional chair) and this ensemble certainly do deserve some kind of special jersey for stamina.
The performers break out of character occasionally and interact with the audience with positive results, making you feel part of the story. It also often leads to cries of ‘come on Beryl!’ from the audience as another race begins; something that following the interval drinks does become slightly distracting to the story, as the interactions continues. This is just chance and due to the personalities of the evening. Understandable, and I suppose the risk of such fruitful interaction with the crowd! The focus was deftly pulled back though and it was ultimately tremendous fun for everyone.
Beryl Burton is a spectacular choice of subject: this outstanding girl and in turn, warrior of a woman ( as an adult played by the endlessly charismatic Jessica Duffield) is an absolute inspiration. Take your daughters, your mums – take everyone to hear her story. It’s so exhilarating, hopeful and heartening and Peake’s script is superbly funny, raucous and full of triumphant joy.
Written by: Maxine Peake
Directed by: Marieke Audsley
Produced by: Sue Kirkman for East Riding Theatre
Box Office: 02075031646
Booking Link: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/beryl/
Booking Until: 16 November 2019