Maxine Peake’s play Beryl was originally written for radio before being adapted for the stage in 2014, to coincide with the opening of the Tour de France in Yorkshire. Updated for 2019 by East Riding Theatre in a co-production with the Arcola – with two jokes about Brexit – it makes less sense.
“Yorkshire housewife” Beryl Burton was a champion cyclist who, with no financial sponsorship, became the first sportswoman in history to break a men’s competitive record.
Marieke Audsley’s cramped, fussy production is performed by a cast of four. The actors move around the stage with unceasing motion. They have to navigate their way around a set that consists of a large chest of drawers (that aren’t opened), shelves, knick-knacks and four static bikes.
The role of Beryl is swapped (unnecessarily) between Jessica Duffield, who is a great fit as fearless adult Beryl, with her steely game face and jovial pragmatism, and Annie Kirkman as plucky child Beryl, who won’t let illness and arrhythmia crush her dreams.
Tom Lorcan plays Beryl’s dedicated husband Charlie and Mark Conway, with grand gestures and a panoply of accents, takes on a multitude of roles.
Audsley’s production rips along, the humour is gentle and there are some nice bantering references throughout to the fact that they are all actors playing parts, lending a fringe-like feel to the show.
It’s emphasised that Beryl did the races for love, not money – a subtle parallel with theatre. But in cramming in the many highlights of Beryl’s life, there’s too much exposition, not enough action – and sometimes it’s hard to really root for Beryl as much as Peake might have wanted.