Beryl by Maxine Peake. The Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 to 16 November 2019. 5*****. William Russell

By Maxine Peake
The Arcola, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL to 16 November 2019.
Mon- Sat 8pm. Mat Sat 3pm.
Runs 2hr One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7503 1646.
Review: William Russell 23 October.

Maxine Peake’s funny, heart warming play rescues from oblivion one of the greatest sportswomen England has ever known. Although in the world of cycling Burton is still revered as one of the greats it is doubtful that she is still a household name – I knew before I saw the play that she was a celebrated cyclist, but that was about it. When and why, other than it was years ago, I did not know. Born in 1937 in Halton, Leeds, she took up cycling, a sport her husband Charlie introduced her to, worked as a farm labourer to raise the cash so that she could compete as an amateur all over England with Charlie as her minder, and then in Europe, while raising their daughter. It was in Leipzig that she discovered she was famous there as the Yorkshire hausfrau if not back home in Britain. It took a long time for that to happen but Beryl, racing at a time when the sport was dominated by men, believed in winning, in sticking it out and she broke the records repeatedly. Her record over 12 miles achieve in 1967 lasted for fifty years. She was twice World Road Race champion, and five time World Pursuit Champion.Her motto was – “Anything the lads can do, I can do.” And she duly did.
Actually she led a blameless life, her marriage was happy, and her daughter also took up cycling. Recognition if not financial did come and she was awarded first the MBE and then the OBE, and in 2009 was inducted into the British Cycling Hall of Fame. Maxine Peake has, however, taken this not all that interesting unless one is mad about cycling life story and created a delightful tale of eccentricity, determination, rising above disaster – Beryl had a couple of bad road accidents and came back with all guns firing to win –which simply enchants. It is helped by a terrific cast of four and the immaculate direction of Marieka Audsley. Basically we have four racing bikes, firmly pinioned to the floor, but the illusion of speeding to victory is conjured up brilliantly as is the way the action moves all over the place without really going anywhere. There are a few back projections, but they add little to the tale being told.
The hook on which the play hangs is that four cyclists, Sue, Jo, Jim and Tom are in the cycle shed and talk about her, play the people in her life and ride the races she won. It is an inspired idea and it works.
Tom Lorcan (Jim)) makes Charlie a devoted husband, a man who understands his bloody minded wife and helps her overcome the obstacles in her path, while Jessica Duffield (Sue) is tough and vulnerable and forever rising above what seem like disasters that cannot be overcome with patent determination and oodles of charm. Whether Beryl had charm is anybody’s guess. She thrived before television made stars of cyclists. But you root for Duffield’s Beryl. Annie Kirkman and Mark Conway play all the other people met along the way and complete this outstanding quartet.
As a play Beryl has its occasional problems – act one simply stops so that there can be an interval – but Peake has conjured up a consistently amusing script and Marieka Audsley has served it well.
Sue: Jessica Duffield.
Jo: Annie Kirkman.
Jim: Tom Lorcan.
Tom: Mark Conway.

Director: Marieke Audsley.
Lighting Video Designer: Simon Bedwell.
Set Design: Ed Ullyart.
Costume Design: Sylvia Eales.
Production Photographer: Alex Brenner.
Assistant Director: Roberta Zuric.

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