Friday 25 October 2019

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

It's fitting that Beryl is playing at the Arcola theatre in Dalston, not far from Cafe Beryl's that similarly commemorates the cyclist. Yet for many, Beryl Burton is an unknown.

The opening of this play from Maxine Peake, first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014, admits and laments this. That's why the play, quite literally, aims to answer the question: who was Beryl Burton?

What ensues is a straightforward biographical depiction of Beryl's life, from childhood to her death in 1996. In that time she won numerous championship medals and held countless records (though sadly no Olympic medals, as women's cycling was only included from 1984 onwards). In addition to her life, the play also gives a potted history of the sport.

Yet what the play makes abundantly clear is the hardship she went through for such success. A woman in a man's world (who went on to exceed men's records), she endured farmwork and slowly rose through the ranks to reach the dizzying championship heights. And all with a lack of finances, done to earn money to look after her family as both mother and competitor. The play isn't overtly political, but it is an inherently feminist narrative.

As you'd expect from Peake, the script is funny. Much of this comes from fourth wall breaking moments where the actors banter and address the audience directly. It adds excitement to an otherwise simple piece of storytelling and the cast of four give buoyant performances as multiple characters both on and off their bikes - thighs of steel doesn't begin to cut it. There are plenty of small directorial touches too from Marieke Audsley, resulting in a polished and openly theatrical production.

It all speeds along at a fast pace that perhaps doesn't go into too much detail, instead focusing on the central protagonist with a smattering of secondary caricatures. But this is low stakes theatre, ideal for the Fringe, that's pleasantly enjoyable.

Above all this is an uplifting and wholesome story of a woman's fiery determination to overcome adversity. Who is Beryl Burton? An inspiration. Now there's a play to truly cement her place in sporting history.


Watch: Beryl runs at the Arcola Theatre until 16th November.

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre
Photo: Alex Brenner