Review: Beryl (Arcola Theatre)

Maxine Peake’s homage to a British cycling legend does not get out of first gear

Jessica Duffield and Annie Kirkman in Beryl
Jessica Duffield and Annie Kirkman in Beryl
© Alex Brenner

Beryl Burton was one of the greatest cyclists this country has ever produced – a competitor whose 12-hour distance record stood for an astounding 50 years. Her story of prejudice, medical setbacks and eventual triumph is an inspirational one by any standard. It is such a shame that this production does not nearly do her legacy justice.

It is blindingly obvious from the very beginning that Beryl was a play initially written for the radio; penned by Maxine Peake and aired on BBC Radio 4 in 2012, it isn't beyond the realms of possibility to imagine this story working in that medium. Fast paced dialogue, instantaneous scene changes and a myriad of cycling sound effects might be able to pass on the airwaves but on this stage in Dalston the result is a complete mess.

The production jumps from scene to scene in a haphazard, scattergun manner, which has the effect of making the whole ordeal feel akin to a collection of hastily assorted anecdotes rather than a plot with any degree of structure and narrative intent. Even the interludes from Beryl's 'story' are a torturous affair, as the characters on stage pursue painfully awkward tangents about various cycling topics.

The word character is probably rather generous because aside from Beryl and her husband Charlie, it is pretty much impossible to determine which actor is playing any character at a given moment. All these forgettable secondary voices are best understood as caricatures of societal figures with shoddy and inconsistent Northern accents. As a result, the production feels like a parody of itself.

It is honestly hard to believe that someone as creative and talented as Peake wrote this – even the salient political points of the story feel heavy-handed and contrived in a cumbersome script. Symptomatic of the production's shocking attempt at humour, any time a character asks a question another doesn't know the answer to, the retort is "Brexit!" At least there is no way Peake could have written that. It is lazy, cheap and as far from funny as it is possible to get.

A moment of solace occurs at the end of the production as the lights dim and film footage of Burton in her heyday is projected onto the back of the stage. The best way to remember and appreciate her as a sporting icon would be to find any similar recordings on the internet – steer well clear of this production.