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Maxine Peake's celebration of the life of sporting legend Beryl Burton is a night of high-speed fun
We all know Maxine Peake is one of our country’s best stage actresses, but can she write? Absolutely.
Her first play is about the life of cycling legend Beryl Burton, which is great news for fans of underappreciated women from the north with the name Beryl who had previously only heard of Beryl Bainbridge.
It’s already charmed audiences at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and you can now catch it at the Rose Theatre in Kingston before it goes on a national tour.
If you think the life of an obscure female cyclist from the 1960s sounds a bit niche, join the club. Forget your preconceptions; it’s an evening of relentless fun, committed to teaching its audience something, whilst simultaneously never taking itself too seriously and maintaining a fierce respect for its heroine.
One of the best bits of Peake’s writing is her confidence with breaking down the fourth wall to provide a sardonic commentary on events. When the play starts, the actors talk about how they had to google Beryl Burton before their auditions. At one point, an actor blames a crap prop on ‘David Cameron and his arts cuts’. It’s an endearing, playful device, almost like being on a school trip and having your mate next to you whisper in your ear.
The cast of four, who play multiple characters, have great comedic skill and excel under Rebecca Gatward’s creative, physical direction, even if this theatre sometimes feels a little too big for such a character-driven homespun yarn.
There’s no question that Burton was an exceptional woman; the more you learn about her, the more you feel bewilderment and annoyance that her life hasn’t been properly acknowledged (her omission from history is a disapproving refrain throughout the play).
With that in mind, my only gripe is that ‘Beryl’ is sometimes in danger of becoming mawkish in its level of reverence for its heroine; when we’re told a record she broke remains unbeaten today, the audience break into applause, and the actors do too. The play ends with a roll call of her achievements, the stage laden with trophies. It’s astonishingly formidable, but we’ve just spent two hours learning what an incredible woman she was – we don’t need to have it, quite literally, spelt out to us.
It might be about a woman who never held back, but if the play did that a tiny bit more, it might just be perfect.
BY: TESSIE JOHNSON