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Beryl

Maxine Peake
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Bolton Library and Museum

Vicky Binns Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Chris Jack Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Vicky Binns and Matthew Heywood Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Chris Jack Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Vicky Binns and Flora Spencer-Longhurst Credit: Jonathan Keenan

As the rebuilt Octagon building is taking shape across the road, director Kimberley Sykes is making the most of the tiny but intimate theatre space in Bolton Library and Museum with a production that in many ways is perfectly suited to that venue.

The title character is Beryl Burton, a world champion cyclist from Yorkshire whose list of achievements is astounding, including seven world titles and a whole string of world records, one of which was only broken two years ago after standing for fifty years. Maxine Peake's play, her first for the stage, was adapted from her 2012 Radio 4 play for the 2014 Yorkshire Festival that preceded Yorkshire's hosting of the first two stages of the Tour de France.

The story is staged as though four actors—Vicky Binns, Matthew Heywood, Chris Jack and Flora Spencer-Longhurst—have come together to share the life of this great woman with us, the audience, with whom they interact at several points in the play, even passing round liquorice allsorts and chatting to the audience before it begins. They all play multiple roles, shift scenery, create sound effects and do a lot of cycling, which is exhausting to watch, even though they never move from the spot. Every so often, there are playful squabbles between the actors about what they are playing next, which I found sometimes amusing and sometimes a bit irritating as it got in the way of the story (I've no idea why Southport nuns were dancing to Madonna in conical bras).

The play begins by forcefully making the point that Beryl isn't remembered anything like as well as she should be (actually, I mentioned her name to my 88-year-old father the same morning and he remembered her well, even though he didn't have any memory of his best friend visiting just a couple of days earlier). The actors then give us a whistle-stop tour of her life, from being a headstrong child determined to constantly challenge herself to improve, even just bouncing a ball against a wall, right through to her death just before her 59th birthday.

Along the way, we see her plans for the future scuppered at the age of 10 when she collapsed during her 11+ exam and was diagnosed with rheumatic fever which meant 9 months in hospital and a further 15 months convalescing in Southport. This left her with heart problems for the rest of her life, but she defied the doctor's insistence that "vigorous exercise is out of the question"—in fact, as she is portrayed here, this only encouraged her to prove them all wrong, spurring her on to want to win at all costs. She left school at 16 and started work, where she met her husband, Charlie Burton, who introduced her to cycling and got her to join his cycling club, where she soon was beating all the men.

As an amateur, she had to work on a rhubarb farm to pay for her travel and competition entries, even when she was competing internationally, as there was no government assistance—unlike in some other European countries, as she saw when she travelled to Berlin. She had a daughter, Denise, who also cycled, but she accused Charlie of being soft on her and always pushed her to put in the work, even refusing to shake hands with her daughter famously in public in 1976 when Denise had finished before her.

The play certainly gets across the magnitude of her achievements, which it lists in full at the end. It also shows her ruthless determination to win, whatever the sacrifices, both personal and financial, and also her close bond with Charlie, who travelled with her everywhere and provided technical as well as emotional support, stepping back from his own ambitions in the sport to support hers.

The 'rough theatre' style, familiar from a million student and fringe productions form the last fifty or sixty years, works perfectly well, although to me it felt a bit overdone in places. Overall, it feels like something you would normally see in a museum from a small theatre company doing several short performances a day to portray a particular historical event or figure—so it is an appropriate location—stretched into a full-length play. There are even some mini-lectures to educate the audience on various relevant subjects, such as the history of time trialling.

Much of the story is told through narration with scenes that are too short to develop into anything substantial and dialogue that is functional and can tend towards the cliché, but later on there are some more confrontational scenes that the actors get the most from. Authority figures tend to be turned into grotesque caricatures who are trying to prevent her from pursuing her ambitions, whereas in reality there may have been a genuine concern for her health in view of her potentially life-threatening condition.

But really this is an educational piece that does have some moments of tension and euphoria but where real intention is to inform us about something the playwright thinks we should know, communicated admirably by a cast who appear to have endless energy and infectious enthusiasm for their subject and for sharing it in a good natured way rather than trying to make the audience feel guilty for not knowing it already as some such pieces do. As such, while it did feel a bit too long, I came out knowing a lot more about Beryl than when I went in, so it has to be judged a success.

Reviewer: David Chadderton