Maxine Peake
Arcola Theatre and East Riding Theatre
Arcola Theatre (Studio Two)

Jessica Duffield as Sue (being Beryl) and Annie Kirkman as Jo (being Denise) Credit: Alex Brenner
Jessica Duffield as Sue (being Beryl) and Annie Kirkman as Jo (being Denise) Credit: Alex Brenner

Beryl, Beryl Burton OBE. I have to confess that, as one of the actors in this play admits to the audience, I’d never heard of her. But then on Make Me a Millionaire it’s the sports questions that would stump me.

Beryl Burton was a world champion cyclist—and that despite being told aged 11, when illness left her with a weak heart, that she should never take any form of strenuous exercise. This was the first sportswoman to break a male record, five-times world champion and best British all-rounder for 25 years. Cycling did not feature in the Olympic Games until 1984; if it had, she would surely have been a gold medal winner.

Maxine Peake’s play follows her through life from childhood (played by Annie Kirkman who later becomes her daughter Denise) and with potted biography gives us a quick history of competitive cycling too.

“What do teachers and doctors know about me?” asks young Beryl. She puts aside the idea that not going to grammar school would mean a life of disappointment and disillusion declaring, “I will make my mark!”

This is a story of hard work and determination at a time when there was no official support and, when she couldn’t afford to take a train to a meeting, she cycled there as well as when competing.

Beryl was introduced to competitive cycling by Charlie, who became her husband, joining the Morley Cycling Club in her home town in Yorkshire. Recognising her as the better cyclist, he enthusiastically supported her. Money was short, they couldn’t afford special equipment or coaching and Beryl did manual labour on a rhubarb farm as well as running their home and raising their daughter who grew up to be her racing rival.

This story of guts and determination is given a metatheatrical structure. There are no Burton names in the roles the cast play, just the names of imaginary actors who may address the audience directly. One complains to his agent that he said it involved a little light cycling—not this continual pedalling; two of them vie to play the Queen to present Beryl’s medals. They all pitch in playing the smaller roles and staging finishing line victories, but it is a seemingly inexhaustible Jessica Duffield who gives the stimulating central performance as Beryl, with Tom Lorcan lovingly supportive as Charlie and Annie Kirkman and Mark Conway pedalling beside them (on stationary bikes). They work so hard, they’ll be super fit by the end of the run—ultra-green Arcola ought to harness that output of energy.

Director Marieke Audsley’s imaginative staging keeps up the pace, blending a light jokey style with hard information and excellent timing. Ed Ullyart’s set features cycle wheels on the theatre’s brick wall and finds places to store props to make it feels like a cycle workshop with Simon Bedwell’s lighting providing atmosphere.

Part of the pleasure comes from the cheeky way they solve presentation challenges. A moving story of “a Yorkshire lass with a mind of her own,” as one voice describes her, and a tribute to a working class woman (and her husband) who achieved things against the odds, this is also an evening of great fun.

Beryl Burton died in 1996 still cycling as she delivered invitations to her 59th birthday party, a woman who should be remembered, a life that this play celebrates.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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