Writer: Maxine Peake
Director: Marieke Audsley
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
It’s often fair to assume that stories about sport are never really about sport at all, there’s usually a personal story of human endurance, bravery and generally some metaphorical hurdles to overcome with rivals and competitors off the track or pitch. But not this one, because Maxine Peake’s 2014 play Beryl, now playing at the Arcola Theatre, is about the astonishing but largely forgotten achievements of a female cycling champion who set every record going.
After passing out during her 11+, Beryl is told that any kind of physical exertion may be fatal but determined to prove everyone wrong she joins a cycling club where she meets her husband Charlie and goes on to win race after race. At the peak of her powers Beryl is challenged by her daughter but is determined that nothing and no one will stop her.
Peake’s play is a jaunty and occasionally zany tale of personal determination and skill that came entirely from Beryl Burton’s hard work in an era where gyms, personal training plans and energy drinks were decades away. Instead, Peake emphasises Beryl’s insistence on knowing her own body and what it could cope with mixed with the creation of a very ordinary woman achieving extraordinary things.
In Marieke Audsley’s new production there is a feel for the racing life as biographical detail, events and achievements whizz by at a dizzying pace as the four actors create lots of locations, people and scenarios over more than 40-years. Occasionally, it’s a little hard to keep up as Beryl’s story is told chronologically, event after event, win after win, record-breaker after record-breaker, all with a sense of marvel ay how this woman surpassed everyone.
Yet, we never find out what made her so good – was it the solid foundation of cycling from Yorkshire to London and then competing, was it the motivation of being told she couldn’t do it or the adrenalin rush of victory that spurred her on? Beryl takes a narrative approach to what she did but now how and why she could.
But there is lots of fun to be had along the way and the four cast members – Annie Kirkman, Tom Lorcan, Mark Conway and Jessica Duffield as Beryl are clearly in awe of their subject, conveying plenty of enthusiasm for her achievements and creating a cast of supporting characters that take the story all around the UK and Europe. Audsley uses different technical approaches to make the racing scenes more interesting (based on stationary bikes), employing music and lighting effects as well as Peake’s dialogue and commentary to add variety.
Running at 90-minutes plus an unnecessary interval the second Act delves a little further into the physical consequences of being a top-class athlete as well as how Burton’s form somehow defied age, but it does get side-tracked with some longer sequences of family life. Unrelentingly positive it may be, but nonetheless Beryl is very much a story about one woman who geared her entire life to achieving as much as possible and her absolute dedication to the sport she loved.
Runs Until: 16 November 2019 | Image: Alex Brenner