Beryl

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The sport of cycling is currently in the midst of a golden age here in the UK.  Through their exploits at the Olympics and the Tour du France, cyclists such as Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Laura Kenny (was Trott) have become household names and an  inspiration to thousands of people across the land. However, way before any of these came along, Britain had Beryl Burton and Beryl was every bit a hero as these fine riders.

Beryl is the fascinating true story of a strong independent Yorkshire lass, who  refused to be beaten and did things her way. She won countless championships, set records, broke records, and managed to stay at the top of her game for 25 years. 

Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Vicky Binns bring Beryl to life, with Longhurst as the child Beryl who contracts St Vitus’s Dance aged 10. The illness caused a weakening of the heart and a loss of control of the limbs. The infection saw the young girl confined to hospital for nine months, as well as having a huge impact on her confidence. 

When she leaves school, Beryl meets Charlie Burton (Chris Jack), a local lad with an interest in cycling. Charlie’s passion becomes Beryl’s obsession and soon she is competing in races, first at county level,  then nationally, and inevitablycompeting at the cycling world championships, all this whilst holding down a full time job and raising a family. 

At first glance this is the classic underdog story we are so familiar with, but dig a little deeper and you couldn’t be further from the truth. This woman was always going to be a success through hard work, guts, determination and sheer bloody mindedness: success was never in doubt.  Maxine Peake’s script is a love letter to this unique, amazing lady filled with warmth, humour and plenty of charm. It ditches the usual sporting clichés in favour of celebrating its subject and having fun.

Under the excellent direction of Kimberley Sykes, the cast of four are in fine form, injecting plenty of spirit into the production and all showing a gift for comedy. Vicky Binns puts in a strong, feisty turn as the adult Beryl  she really gets to the heart of what spurs her on. 

Chris Jack is equally fine as Charlie, turning in a warm, heartfelt performance as the devoted Charlie. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is clearly having fun as the young Beryl and later Beryl’s daughter Denise: her facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. Finally, Matthew Heywood plays pretty much every other character in the play including an overzealous German fan and a rather dour Yorkshire copper. Heywood like his fellow cast members puts a great comedic performance.

All four should be commended for their work as this is a physically demanding show, with lots (and I do mean lots) of cycling, think a spin class with a plot and you’re on the right track! As each cast member dart about the theatre and hop on the strategic placed bikes around the theatre you become immersed in their world.

There is very much a ‘punk’ vibe to the production, cast members often break the fourth wall, coming out of character to address the audience and each other. The use of contemporary pop songs despite not being of that era, and the cast’s DIY approach to special effects creating their own inclement weather using a leather blower and some water pistols give the production a carefree, easy going charm.

This is an inspirational story delivered in a funny, touching but never sentimental fashion. Old and young alike will find something to admire about the show which will certainly leave you wanting to find out more about Beryl and her extraordinary achievements, whilst it may inspire you to dig out your Raleigh Chopper from the shed. Beryl’s story is ripe for a silver screen adaptation so catch it Bolton whilst you can.

Beryl is at the Bolton Library and Museum till the 19thOctober. Tickets available here.

Early Doors

Early Doors 2

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Some 14 years ago, Stockport’s most famous pub The Grapes closed its doors for the last time. This was the setting of the much-cherished Craig Cash and Phil Mealey penned sitcom. While only spanning 12 episodes, the show garnered huge critical success and developed a loyal fan base. When the show wasn’t recommisioned in 2004 it came as a bit of a shock.

Last year saw The Grapes fling its doors open again for a series of live theatre and arena shows, which started with a sell-out residency at the Quays theatre at the Lowry. Such was the strength of the production; the show won the best theatre production at the City Life awards.

Early Doors 3

Well the live show has returned to the Lowry this time with a 10-night run in the Lyric theatre. This is very much a continuation of the TV series as we are reacquainted with much-loved characters and introduced to some new, albeit familiar characters. It is to the show’s credit that many of the original cast have returned to the show; however, I doubt that they needed much persuading.

This is not just a nostalgia trip trotting out old gags and catchphrases. Cash and Mealey have created a new show which see’s Grapes landlord Ken (John Henshaw) plucking up the courage to propose to part-time barmaid Tanya (Susan Cookson). However, things don’t go to plan, with the intervention of Ken’s mum: Jean (Judith Barker), and also some big-mouthed if well meaning locals, newcomers Freddie and June (Vicky Binns and Neil Hurst) who upset Ken’s plan. In addition, best friends Duffy (Mealey) and Joe (Cash), have their own problems, with the former delving into the world of online dating, and the latter having a few family issues. In addition, local bent coppers: Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wight) are struggling with rules and regulations like “evidence” getting in the way of good honest coppering!

Early Doors 1

If you are a diehard fan, or coming to Early Doors Live fresh, this show will leave you entertained and with a huge grin on your face. Packed full of stingy one-liners, pathos and a great deal of heart the show continues to focus on the same themes that made the series a success: love, loneliness, friendship and family, because no mistake the regulars in the Grapes are one big family not to dissimilar to another Cash and Mealey project: The Royale Family.

The cast are on great form: Melissa Sinden as the sharp tongued Winnie, instantly makes you forget about the shows 14 year absence while newcomers Vicky Binns, Neil Hurst, and Nick Birkinshaw as skinflint Tommy, fit in like Grapes regulars. Cash and Mealy don’t miss the chance to poke fun at our new PM; each gag had them and the audience in stitches.

Early Doors

The surprising sing-along finale is an unexpected treat and a fittingly joyous end to a highly entertaining evening. As the show closed, the cast are given a well-deserved standing ovation. Get yourself down to the Lowry and join the regiment, you won’t be disappointed.

Early Doors is on the Lowry until Saturday 3rd August then heads out on a nationwide tour; tickets are available here.

 

Abigail’s Party

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

First premiered in 1977 at London’s Hampstead Theatre then broadcast on the BBC that same year, Mike Leigh’s ingenious Abigail’s Party brings to brilliant life the most painfully awkward cocktail party in the most hilarious & enthralling of ways.

Suburban housewife Beverly has set the scene for her soirée; she’s prepped the cheese & pineapple on sticks, switched on the fibre optic lamp & stocked the drinks cabinet in readiness for the arrival of new neighbours Angela (Vicky Binns) and Tony (Callum Callaghan). Also invited is neighbour Sue (Rose Keegan) who is escaping 15-year-old daughter Abigail’s party over at her own house. Beverly’s husband Lawrence (Daniel Casey) is also in attendance in between running errands while his wife prepares to schmooze.

Janet Bird’s inspired set transports us right back to the 70’s as knowing giggles ripple through the audience from the off when Beverly enters the chintzy wood panelled living room cigarette in mouth, gin in hand, decked head to toe in garish paisley she glides around the stage to the sensuous sounds of Donna Summer.

Some spikey exchanges take place between Beverly and husband Lawrence before their guests arrive offering the opportunity for our brash hostess to really come into her own. She is liberal with both the booze and her opinions as some of the small talk soon begins to sting.

Jodie Prenger is exceptional as the infamous Beverly, getting more and more grotesquely brilliant as the gin flows. So versatile in her skills she embodies the desperate housewife to perfection. Daniel Casey gives a great performance as Lawrence keeping his pent-up irritation with wife Beverly hidden to begin with until pushed to breaking point when things quickly start to unravel.

Vicky Binns as Angela is eager to please her new neighbour, her genuine naivety and optimism making her all the more endearing. Her inane chatter leads to some terse tellings off from frustrated husband Tony whom Callum Callaghan portrays convincingly.

Rose Keegan shines as fifth party guest Sue, quiet and polite despite some overly familiar probing questions she gives a hilarious performance as the single guest caught in the middle of two clearly unhappy couples.

Director Sarah Esdaile at times focuses less on the uncomfortable interactions and undercurrent of frustration & more on the humour of the piece. Traditionally tense moments are played a little more for laughs than they were in the famous Alison Steadman led version, this does dilute the emotional impact of the ending a little however with such superbly executed performances the is no doubt that this is an enormously entertaining piece.

Although Abigail’s Party is very firmly set in the 1970’s its genius lies in its hilarious and at times painfully honest study on human interaction, ambition and all the complexities that come with it. Littered with laugh out loud humour and moments to make your toes curl Abigail’s Party is wonderfully entertaining theatre with themes as relevant today as they were 40 years ago, the most eventful party you’ll ever be invited to.

Abigail’s Party is on at Manchester’s Opera House until Saturday 13th April tickets available here.