Beryl Burton: a name that is, shockingly, unknown to most. Just from googling her, it’s outrageous that her story has not been adapted before. Taking on this task is one of the UK’s most beloved actresses, Maxine Peake. First given life as a radio play, to align with the Tour De France in 2014, Beryl has now extended into a full length production transferring from the East Riding Theatre in Yorkshire to the Arcola Theatre in Dalston.
Beryl Burton’s story is nothing short of inspiring: coming from a working class background in a Morley, a small town near Leeds, Beryl got into cycling through the man that would eventually become her husband – despite being told aged 10 that due to health problems she could never do strenuous exercise. Starting off as a hobby, Beryl got better and better, fighting against the voices of those who told her she could not achieve her goals. Beryl went onto win numerous cycling awards, and ultimately the incomparable feat of setting a world record, even beating the men’s record at the time!
Told by 4 actors, who break the fourth wall, to make quips about their agents and Brexit; Jessica Duffield, Mark Conway, Annie Kirman and Tom Lorcan fluidly move between roles. Kirkman plays a young Beryl; stealing the show with the subtle comedic timing, as she enters into other roles. Duffield plays Beryl for the remainder of her life, and emanates Beryl’s true grit and northern sense of humour. However, the main call out for this cast is their stamina, as they run around the stage interchanging characters and also utilising the working stationary bikes on stage, pedalling so quickly at points that Beryl herself would be impressed!
Despite only running at 90 minutes (including an interval), there are some breaks into factoids that could be cut. Likewise, the sacrifices Beryl made with her physical and emotional state, and in her relationships, could have been further explored. However, the chemistry amongst the actors, and the ease in which they depict each character help to relieve this.
Kudos is also due to Ed Ullyart’s set, lit magnificently by Simon Bedwell. The combination of these two elements further exhibits how cycling encompassed Beryl’s life: with the bikes centre stage, and lit bicycle wheels on the walls. Marieke Audsley cleverly nods to this within her direction too, with one bike being used as a wedding carriage and the handlebar being used as a toilet flush.
Beryl Burton was an incredible woman, and Maxine Peake’s writing truly credits this. As with many shows that are coming into the theatre space these past few years, Peake’s writing illuminates a women that should already have been highlighted in the history books. Many people will be attracted to this production due to Maxine Peake’s name, but really you should go to hear more about Beryl’s.