Peake champions cyclist Beryl Burton in story with punch and great jokes

Beryl is the story of cyclist Beryl Burton
Beryl is the story of cyclist Beryl Burton

How clever of the management of the East Riding Theatre to have staged Beryl in the week that the Tour de Yorkshire thunders along the coast not far from Beverley. Good planning or perhaps just a coincidence?

Whatever the reason, the choice of Maxine Peake’s homage to Beryl Burton is an excellent one for a small stage.

Four actors playing all the parts, with four bicycles as the principal component of the set makes for a very economical show. Further, it is not even necessary that the audience should be cycling enthusiasts to appreciate this story of adversity overcome and prejudice thwarted.

The cast is splendid: ‘versatile’ does not come near to describing the contribution that each actor makes to the evening’s entertainment.

The part of Bery is principally the responsibility of Jessica Duffield, while her husband, coach and general dogsbody is Tom Lorcan. While these two carry the narrative, they also step into minor roles when required.

Annie Kirkman and Finlay Mcguigan play a whole life-time of minor parts including cycling rivals (male and female), police officers, hotel clerks, a daughter and a host of others.

Staying mostly in lycra, the only way the audience can keep up with the rapid switches between characters is through spotting changes in body language, variations in accent and voice pitch.

Director Marieke Audsley achieves coherence from a piece that could potentially feel diffuse. Designer Ed Ullyart pulls off his customary minor miracle from limited resources.

Peake makes much of the neglect Beryl experienced in her lifetime. She implies that the indifference was the result of more dominant sports (“I’m an Athletics man myself”) and the fact that Beryl was a female sports star whose achievements were easily dismissed by blinkered male administrators.

Everyone hopes that attitudes have now changed and that we would recognise world class achievements like Beryl’s. But would we? I looked up a Guardian article that listed 32 British world champions in a variety of sports. I recognised the names of only seven, male or female. The ones I did recognise had a presence on television, such as Ronnie O’Sullivan.

A secondary theme was the capacity in each of us to achieve great things, but not everyone can be a Beryl Burton. The heroism comes from determination and the courage to try.

Don’t go away thinking Beryl is all worthy homilies, the story is told with some great jokes.

Beryl runs at the East Riding Theatre Beverley until Saturday May 18. Performances are daily at 7.30pm. Matinees on Wednesday May 8, Saturday May 11 and Saturday May 18 at 2.30pm.

Tickets: 01482 874050 or on line here