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
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