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Review: Beryl at Arcola Theatre

PUBLISHED: 10:16 31 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:16 31 October 2019

Jessica Duffield in Beryl at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Alex Brenner.

Jessica Duffield in Beryl at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Alex Brenner.

(c) Alex Brenner

This is a gloriously happy, funny and moving play.

Jessica Duffield in Beryl at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Alex Brenner.Jessica Duffield in Beryl at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Alex Brenner.

It tells the astonishing (but neglected) story of one of the finest athletes to represent Great Britain. Beryl Burton's career lasted almost 30 years. She was successful on road and track, was the Best British All Rounder for 25 years, was world champion five times and won 72 GB time trials and 24 national titles.

In 1967, aged 30, she set a new 12-hour record which beat the men's record!

She died in 1996, in the saddle, from heart failure.

Using a very clever set that features four classic racing bikes on training-rigs, the four cast members tell Beryl's story from sickly child with heart arrhythmia to getting her first job and falling in love with both life-long partner Charlie and, of course, cycling.

She achieved all this with the support of Charlie and members of the Morley Cycle Club: no sponsorship, no micromanagement or iffy "medicines" in brown envelopes. She paid her own way (trains and boats and lifts in lorries) to competitions across Europe, bought her own bike and kit.

Beryl was a Yorkshire lass and, according to playwright Maxine Peake (yes, that one) she was cast from pure Yorkshire grit with added phlegm, determination and an iron will to be first in everything she did.

There is plenty of laugh-out dialogue and cunning stage craft: the audience gets a warm welcome into the play itself with lots of asides and banter between this fantastically talented cast.

The drama helps put the record straight and restores the legacy of this amazing woman. It is an overdue reminder of the lost world of the amateur and the values that inspired (what Ms Burton would probably call 'proper') athletes.

Oddly, for a play that features Beryl in every scene, we leave the Arcola educated and entertained, but have learned little about the woman herself. There are hints of life outside cycling but the comic book style of this otherwise excellent production prevents real examination of Beryl the woman.

Rating: 3/5.

Continues at Arcola Theatre until November 16. More details and tickets here.

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