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Review: Beryl, at Arcola Theatre

Maxine Peake’s fun play about little-known cycling legend Beryl Burton features wildly talented actors

31 October, 2019 — By Clair Chapwell

Jessica Duffield in Beryl. Photo: Alex Brenner

A PLAY about a forgotten female bicycling legend? I thought: Sounds jolly. (Not.)

Well, it’s a blast. The tiny stage at the Arcola is crammed with four bicycles and random caps, cups, tops and scarves.

Four lively actors playing more than 100 parts bounce through the life of Yorkshire lass Beryl Burton in a play inventively written by Maxine Peake with a feel for the “inventiveness of the rehearsal room” according to director Marieke Audsley, who teases out all the fun from the script.

The evening has an improvised feel as the actors slip from cyclists to opera singers to midwives to farmers, to yobs to… well, you get my drift.

So, Beryl Burton: who? I didn’t know, turns out neither did the actors (one confessed: “I googled her before the audition”).

Beryl Burton (Jessica Duffield plays the adult Beryl, Annie Kirkman as a child), an incredible cyclist, born in 1937 set astonishing cycling records and trained by working as a farm labourer.

In the early impoverished days she and faithful husband Charlie (Tom Lorcan) had to cycle to London for races. For years her success in Britain was completely unacknowledged although she broke record after record including some held by men: 10 mile, 50 mile, 100 mile and – get ready – 277 miles in 12 hours (doesn’t that make you want to get down the gym?)

I wondered if there was a missed opportunity in Act 2. Daughter Denise (also played by Annie Kirkman) follows in her footsteps and eventually defeats her in competition. Furious Beryl refuses to shake her hand. She explains to husband Charlie that Denise “won the wrong way – I never had her advantages!”

This brief explosion hints at a level of character we never again see. But it’s a small quibble. It’s a really fun night out at the theatre. A really good yarn and four wildly talented actors. What’s not to like?

Until November 16
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