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Beryl by Maxine Peake from Octagon Theatre: Review

Home » Reviews » Beryl by Maxine Peake from Octagon Theatre: Review

Yorkshire cyclist, Beryl Burton (1937-1996), has a strong claim to being the greatest sporting hero Great Britain has ever produced and yet, as Kimberley Sykes’s production of Maxine Peake’s biographical piece makes us painfully aware, she remains almost unknown among the general public (though cycling enthusiasts, up and down the country, still doff their caps to the memory of her astonishing achievements).

For a quarter of a century, Beryl dominated British cycling (not to mention being five times world champion), even occasionally outperforming her male counterparts. Her 12-hour record was better than the men’s mark for two years (1967-69). It would take 50 years for another woman to pass it.

The list of her sporting achievements is genuinely astonishing (and perhaps the emotional peak of the evening, when they are listed at the finale). This is all the more remarkable, given that as a young teenager, Beryl was struck down with a combination of rheumatic fever and St Vitus’s Dance, and was advised to avoid strenuous exercise for the rest of her life. Moral? Never tell a Yorkshirewoman what she can and can’t do.

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    Unfailingly supported by her husband Charlie (and with not a little backing from the Morley Cycling Club of which they were both members), Beryl observed: “There’s nobody like cycling folk. They’ll change your life.” Sykes’s production aims to draw parallels between the communal yet underfunded (certainly in Beryl’s day) sport of cycling and the struggles of contemporary theatre. Her approach has a distinctly inclusive feel to it. The fourth wall is almost entirely absent in this mix of dramatised storytelling and the sharing of background facts via direct address and slide projections.

    This method plays to the strengths of Peake’s episodic script – the show is more a series of interesting, energetically-performed anecdotes than a drama. The sustained frenetic pace of the production displays a stamina that might have impressed Beryl herself.

    Vicky Binns – a bundle of energy and tenacity – is perfectly cast as the grown-up Beryl (though it’s hard not to feel that she has more depths to give as an actor than script and direction allow, here). Flora Spencer-Longhurst charms as the young Beryl and then Denise, Beryl’s daughter who grew to be a champion in her own right. Chris Jack as Charlie Burton, the loyal husband who introduced Beryl to cycling and encouraged and supported her throughout, has an eager warmth that wins the audience over. Dramatically, it feels like there was more to be wrung from this fascinating triangle – but that’s another play.

    Matthew Heywood, in his professional debut, has a ball, cameoing a vast range of characters, including Beryl’s tough father, Charlie’s mother, cycling champion Mike McNamara, a German policeman and a nun.

    Beryl. Vicky Binns. Photo by Jonathan Keenan
    Beryl. Vicky Binns. Photo by Jonathan Keenan

    As Movement Consultant for this all-action show mounted in a compact auditorium, Kaitlin Howard has surely earned her money.

    With work on the re-modelling of its home ongoing, this Octagon production is housed across the road in Bolton Central Library’s cosy theatre.

    Get on your bike and support the cause. Let’s not allow the wheels to come off this admirable regional producing house.

    Octagon Theatre Bolton’s production of Beryl by Maxine Peake is at the Library Theatre, Bolton from 19 September to 19 October 2019.

    Read our interview with Beryl director Kimberley Sykes about directing As You Like It for the RSC.

    Written by
    Martin Thomasson

    A winner (with Les Smith) of the Manchester Evening News award for Best New Play, Martin taught script-writing at the universities of Bolton and Salford, before becoming an adjudicator and mentor for the 24:7 theatre festival. Over the years, in addition to drama, Martin has seen more ballet and contemporary dance than is wise for a man with two left feet, and much more opera than any other holder of a Grade 3 certificate in singing.

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    Martin Written by Martin Thomasson