Writer: Maxine Peake
Director: Marieke Audsley
Lighting/Video: Simon Bedwell
Set Designer: Ed Ullyart
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
It’s good to see the ever-enterprising East Riding Theatre reviving Maxine Peake’s ingenious and heartfelt play about Beryl Burton comparatively soon after its Leeds premiere and subsequent tour. The initial premise of the play is that nobody has heard of Beryl Burton despite her totally unique sporting achievements – not strictly accurate, of course, but enquiries suggest that it has a surprising amount of truth in it. Beryl lived in the days before competition cycling became a fashionable spectator sport in the UK, so it’s pleasingly ironic that Beryl was initially staged as part of the celebrations of the Tour de France and the Beverley production coincides with the arrival of the Tour de Yorkshire in the town.
Beryl Burton’s list of victories, as recited at the end of the play, defies belief, both in terms of range of events, from individual pursuit titles on the track to setting a new record (better than the men’s) for 12-hour distance, and in terms of the number of titles won, 20-plus for some events, with her last time-trial victory in her late 40s. She received some recognition – MBE and OBE, for instance – but no financial reward. For many years she had to cycle to events as well as in them and she was staggered at the level of government recognition and support in East Germany when she competed (and won) in the World Championships in Leipzig.
Maxine Peake’s main intention is to honour Beryl Burton: the final image of the ERT production, as the actors step aside, is a projection of the cyclist at speed. Her second intention is to entertain. So she employs the conceit of four actors employed for this biographical play who know little or nothing of Burton’s career. There is plenty of straightforward narration, but also much comedy: characters change at the drop of a hat (or, often, at the donning of a hat), events are portrayed strip-cartoon-style, accents are elongated, props or performances are mocked by fellow-actors. At the same time, the actors give the impression of learning about Burton.
Jessica Duffield is a stalwart Beryl, but even she has the chance of a bit of entertainingly caricatured role-swapping as Beryl’s preposterously snobby teacher. Through Beryl’s troubled childhood, with over a year’s schooling missed with rheumatic fever, the part is played by Annie Kirkman who eventually ends up as Beryl’s daughter Denise. Kirkman and Finlay McGuigan, for the most part, romp through a series of lightning character sketches, McGuigan sporting a resigned “It’s not really me” expression as he switches between assorted policemen, clerks and middle-aged ladies. Tom Lorcan gets his share of the fun, too, with a tendency to excessive factual and historical explanation usually cut short by McGuigan, as well as being both convincing and sympathetic as Beryl’s husband, Charlie.
Ed Ullyart’s set is dominated by a montage of cycle wheels through and over which Simon Bedwell’s videos illustrate events in the play. Marieke Audsley’s fluent direction keeps things moving around the four stationary bikes that dominate the stage and slick lighting and sound effects help to keep the pace up, even if things feel a bit cramped at times.
Runs until May 18, 2019 | Image: Gavin Prest Photography