The Arcola Theatre is the venue for the latest version of Maxine Peake’s play about the greatest British woman cyclist of the 20th century, Beryl Burton. She was at the top of her career for twenty-five years, and one of her records stood for half a century, and yet, you may not have heard of her.

Beryl sets out to redress this balance, of Beryl the athlete, the Yorkshire lass (from Morley, just outside Leeds), the wife, the mother. As well as her staggering cycling prowess, she survived a number of setbacks including rheumatic fever as a child, an irregular heartbeat, a car crash and several nasty track falls. Always, the incomporable Mrs Burton picked herself up and started over, with the motto “Smile if you lose, and laugh like hell if you win”.

Jessica Duffield and Annie Kirkman in Beryl
Jessica Duffield and Annie Kirkman in Beryl

Peake’s play runs a crisp ninety minutes and has many funny moments throughout, in the spirit of Northern humour: the likable and versatile cast start by depicting actors and then play a range of different characters throughout including Beryl herself as child and woman, nuns, nurses, priests, policemen, German hotel desk clerks, Beryl’s parents and her mother-in-law, schoolboys, lads in the office of Montague Burton, fellow cycling competitors, and much more.

Weaved between the moments of humour are elements of pathos and, by the end, when footage of the real Beryl Burton flashes on to the back wall of the stage, a moving tribute to one of the women who should have received far more celebration during her life (she died aged 58, in 1996). Peake’s background as an actor gives her insight into the demands and capabilities of the performers in the piece – and also to include asides which recognise them (“I’m being a bloke” / “Well, tone it down a bit”; “My agent told me light cycling was required”; “You’re playing Denise now”).

Marieke Audsley’s direction, Ed Ullyart’s set design, and Simon Bedwell’s lighting and video all bring the Arcola’s Studio 2 to life: from the static bikes and lit wheels which let us into the training through the moors, the punishing road races, and the battles on the track; to the playground where the young Beryl challenges herself in a ball game.

Jessica Duffield, Tom Lorcan, Annie Kirkman and Mark Conway in Beryl
Jessica Duffield, Tom Lorcan, Annie Kirkman and Mark Conway in Beryl

Music cues, too, are inspired, including bits of the Casualty and Mastermind theme tunes and songs like Rock Around The Clock and Bicycle Race. These both anchor the piece in the right time period, and lift moments of exposition about the intricacies of the sport; to be fair, though, there is a bit too much indulgence of rhubarb and rightly, time is called on it!

Jessica Duffield plays Beryl for most of the piece, and she’s convincing as the girl who builds on Gracie Fields-ish grit to push past her health issues and “make her mark”. Mark Conway’s matter-of-fact farmer and regal royal are fun; Annie Kirkman’s run of male and female cyphers lead into a fair depiction of Beryl’s cycling daughter, Denise (first seen as a baby doll coming into the world complete with cycling helmet). Tom Lorcan is touching as Charlie, who sees a core of steel in his wife and supports her every step of the way.

There’s a staggering real story behind all the levity. A tough lady, “the Yorkshire hausfrau”, who, without proper nutritionists (she drank rice pudding from a baby’s bottle) or coaches (her husband Charlie was her champion), broke record after record well into her forties. These included the most miles covered in a 12-hour stretch – she beat a man on that occasion, and the record stood until 2017.

Mark Conway and Jessica Duffield in Beryl
Mark Conway and Jessica Duffield in Beryl

Beryl is a lovely piece of theatre, an affectionate look at one of Yorkshire’s finest. It is set in a time when not only were women overlooked (no Olympic women’s cycling events until 1984) but cycling itself was seen as completely subservient to athletics. Beryl Burton herself turned down the change to turn professional early in her career but retained her determination by biking around Europe to try for titles and records. Just once the play suggests a less than superhuman endurance when she longs for “a couple of hours in bed on a Sunday” but otherwise her philosophy is always “no” when given advice.

The East Riding Theatre have done a fantastic job bringing this play to life. This version of Beryl was first presented at Leeds’s West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014, having started life on the radio two years earlier. It is clearly a labour of love from Peake and has elements of her own performing style throughout.

Beryl continues at the Arcola Theatre until 16 November, and you can book at https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/beryl/. Photo credits: Alex Brenner.

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