Tag Archives: Mark Conway



Arcola Theatre



 Arcola Theatre

Reviewed – 23rd October 2019



“direction lacks subtlety, and the broad strokes with which all the characters are painted make for a repetitive evening”


Beryl Burton is an unsung sporting heroine; an extraordinary sportswoman whose list of achievements is mindblowing. She was a cyclist, and records that she created in the 1960s and 70s stood for 20 years and more; her 12 hour distance record standing for an astonishing 50 years, only finally to be broken two years ago. She was a working class Yorkshirewoman, wife and mother, yet despite being decorated by the Queen, remains almost unknown in the popular history of British sport. Maxine Peake has sought to change that with this play, first performed five years ago in 2014. It is easy to see why Peake was attracted to Beryl’s story. Peake is a proud Notherner as well as an outspoken feminist and socialist, and Beryl’s very Yorkshire breed of grit and determination, allied with the fact that she has been largely buried by history, dovetails neatly with Peake’s passions. The problem lies with the fact that, outside the parameters of her sporting life, Beryl led an unremarkable life. She was happily married to her exceptionally supportive husband from an early age – it was he, in fact, who first got her on a bike – and had a daughter, Denise, who became a competitive cyclist herself. Beryl was diagnosed with a heart problem when she was still at school, which she refused to let restrict her sporting ambition, and ultimately she succumbed to a heart attack, just short of her 59th birthday party.

The fact that Beryl’s life was so unremarkable only magnifies her extraordinary sporting talent. It does not, however, make for riveting theatre. There is precious little drama in Beryl’s story, and Peake’s decision to write it, documentary style, as a linear narrative, from her school days to her death, does nothing to help lift it off the page. Ed Ullyart’s design works well, and treads the right line between playfulness and functionality, but Marieke Audsley’s direction lacks subtlety, and the broad strokes with which all the characters are painted make for a repetitive evening. Audsley has chosen to liven up the story by creating slapstick cameos throughout, but with only varying degrees of success. Mark Conway clearly has a gift for this type of work, and creates some terrific characters and comedy moments, not least owing to his deft physical work, but the other two supporting cast members frequently fall flat in these situations. There are some bizarre directorial choices too; why, for instance, do the two authority figures (teacher and doctor) in Yorkshire, speak in exaggerated RP? And, given the small size of Arcola Studio 2, why does one of the actors continually shout all their lines? It became exhausting to watch.

Jessica Duffield, as Beryl, is believable as the ordinary woman with extraordinary drive, but the script doesn’t give her much opportunity to flesh her out beyond that. There are some flashes of dramatic interest in the second half, when we are briefly allowed to see a less sympathetic side to Beryl’s character, but they are never developed, to the play’s detriment. What we do see an awful lot of is Beryl on her bike. There’s no denying that it makes a good stage picture to see her pedalling away on stage, but once you’ve seen it and got the point, you’ve seen it and got the point. Tom Lorcan was charming as Beryl’s husband, and again, did his best with the skin-deep sketch given to him by the script, but there was nowhere for him to go. He is the same man at the end as the one we meet at the beginning. Perhaps that is how he actually was (although that would be surprising, given the nature of his wife’s ambition) but there’s no drama there.

Maybe in an effort to address the inherent lack of theatre in this tale, Maxine Peake intermittently gets the actors to break the fourth wall. They make quips about their agents and auditions, and the low-budget nature of the production. This meta-theatrical device doesn’t work however, precisely because of the lack of theatre in the main narrative. It merely has the whiff of in-jokes in the school playground, and sets us further apart as an audience, rather than inviting us in. There’s no doubt that Beryl Burton should be remembered, but her story might have been better served by Maxine Peake herself, in a monologue of half the duration.


Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw

Photography by Alex Brenner



 Arcola Theatre until 16th November


Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Stop and Search | ★★ | January 2019
The Daughter-In-Law | ★★★★★ | January 2019
Little Miss Sunshine | ★★★★★ | April 2019
The Glass Menagerie | ★★★★ | May 2019
Radio | ★★★★ | June 2019
Riot Act | ★★★★★ | June 2019
Chiflón, The Silence of the Coal | ★★★★ | July 2019
The Only Thing A Great Actress Needs, Is A Great Work And The Will To Succeed | ★★★ | July 2019
Anna Bella Eema | ★★★ | September 2019
Meet Me At Dawn | ★★★ | October 2019


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Blue Departed

Blue Departed

VAULT Festival

Blue Departed

Blue Departed

The Vaults

Reviewed – 23rd January 2019



“a gripping and desperately sad study of pain, addiction and loss”


Written by Serafina Cusack and performed by three members of the Anima Theatre Company, Blue Departed is a remarkably intense piece of work. A modern, urban version of Dante’s descent through the nine circles of Hell, it details the utter despair endured by a drug addict (brilliantly captured by Mark Conway) who has just lost the woman he loves (Rebecca Layoo) to a heroin overdose. Cast in the role of Dante, he relays his suffering in a near-continuous series of exchanges with his dead lover, who ‘speaks’ to him through interrogations, recriminations and reminiscences – angry, heartbroken, defiant, loving – and who physically haunts and taunts him around the stage with a gymnastic fluidity. Their paranoid, nihilistic, almost stream-of-consciousness chatter jumps around in both chronology and location – from his flat to her funeral service and a wake that seems to take place in a casino – underscoring how oppressive and all-pervasive his state of self-loathing has become. His earnest younger brother (Richard James Clarke) provides glimpses of sanity and warmth, but the downward trajectory is inescapable.

This one-hour play is certainly bleak, but flashes of humour offer some much-needed relief. Props are minimal – a couple of stools, a few items of clothing hanging from a rail, two plates of food that have a grotesquely comic fate – but the stripped-back set is effective because most of the ‘action’ exists in the shadowy forms of memory or hallucination. It’s a play that mainly occurs within a fevered mind.

Within the small ‘Cage’ room at The Vaults, the actors have limited space to work in. But director Henry C. Krempels turns this limitation to the play’s advantage: the restricted floor area only serves to further highlight the characters’ sense of claustrophobia and imminent panic.

Bursts of menacing ambient sound are used creatively, with layers of distorted electronics accompanying moments of crisis or heightened awareness. This works well in that it’s hugely atmospheric, but there were points at which the noise was too loud and threatened to drown out the actors. That’s a shame because it is a play in which every word counts.

This one criticism aside, Blue Departed is a gripping and desperately sad study of pain, addiction and loss.


Reviewed by Stephen Fall

Photography by Lidia Crisafulli


Vault Festival 2019

Blue Departed

Part of VAULT Festival 2019




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