Beryl and the Perils

Company name: Beryl and the Perils

Founders: An advertisement was put in Time Out for some workshops for Women In Theatre by a woman director (name withheld at her request). The workshops were very successful and at the end of these some of those involved thought they would like to pursue the idea of putting together a company and using their stories as the basis of a performance. Eventually Beryl and the Perils was born from Christine Ellerbeck, Laurel Jana Marks, Didi Hopkins, Angela [name lost] and the woman director. Towards the end of rehearsals, Angela decided she couldn’t commit to the schedule and Claudia Boulton was brought in to replace her. The group went on to devise the cartoonish, musical sketch show, Is Dennis Really the Menace?, which was about women, sex and sexuality.

Established: 1978

Reason: The founders were: ‘Very, very unhappy [and] frustrated’ with the number of women on stage and the roles for women and…the initial impetus was to redress the balance and to put [their] stories on stage.’

Current status: Disbanded in 1986 to pursue other theatrical interests

Area of Work: Women’s Theatre

Policy: ‘To be politically exciting and relevant, socially inclusive and theatrically knife edge.’

Structure:  Collective

Based: London

Funding: Three Arts Council Touring Grants

Performance Venues: Churches, Community Centres, ICA, Half Moon Theatre, Royal Court Upstairs, Women’s Refuges, Rock Against Racism, Rock Against Sexism, Covent Garden Plaza, WOW Festival, Mudclub, CBGB’s, Gay Pride – Central Park, New York, Assembly Rooms – Edinburgh,  Melkweg – Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, among other European cities.

Audiences: Mixed heterosexual and homosexual audiences, feminists, people interested in women’s comedy, women fleeing domestic abuse, punks.

Company and work process:
The cartoonish style arose from all involved but predominately from Christine Ellerbeck and allowed the material to be accessible for all and made it ‘safe to watch at some level, but dangerous’. The director has described the working process as ‘people in tears then (turning) trauma to humour’. It was about reflecting on personal experiences and what was happening in the wider world and ‘mixing personal and political’, whilst drawing on Brechtian, Agit Prop and documentary styles. Each performer brought self generated material to rehearsals and this was then composed into a song and/or devised into a sketch. Is Dennis Really the Menace? established the company’s style, both in performance and look and established Beryl and the Perils as cutting edge, punk performers.

The Perils image was based on the comic strip character Beryl the Peril originally from ‘The Dandy’, and inspired Nicola Lane’s comic strip of grown up Beryl in counter culture magazine It, a big influence on their trade mark striped tops, extreme make up. Nicola Lane’s posters for The Perils and comic book style programmes helped give The Perils their strong identity.

The original company went onto to create Nuts a show about women and mental health and the sexual inequality of treatment within the mental health services. During the creation of Nuts our director decided to leave The Perils to pursue other interests. The Perils then combined sketches from Is Dennis Really the Menace? and Nuts into a best of show called Got Nuilty that toured New York, after which Christine decided to go solo. Then Didi Hopkins organised The Perils first European tour to perform Got Nuilty with original Peril, Claudia Boulton and two new Perils, Denise Stoklos and Reb Nassauer. This formation resulted in controversy when Denise and Reb both became pregnant and [would have had difficulty in participating in a planned European tour] were reluctantly asked to leave]. This decision was widely discussed in feminist circles and can be read about further in Spare Rib – edition 110. Claudia and Didi then teamed up Winnie Caves and Carey Davis to complete another tour. After Winne and Carey departed, Anna Sava and Ella Wilder came on board with Claudia and Didi to devise and perform the show Beryl and the Perils in Space. After a break the original Perils, Claudia, Christine and Didi reformed to create Dead or Alive, which included material about Greenham Common and Chernobyl and the environment. After the success of Dead or Alive, they were commissioned by Half Moon Theatre to write Operation Beryl. The original incarnation of The Perils ‘imploded’ in 1986 following an argument between the cast during the get-in at The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, where they were booked to perform Dead or Alive. This ended with one of the cast members receiving a black eye, but the show still went on! This was reported in the Glasgow Herald as a moment of life imitating art and quoting The Perils publicity material, which stated, ‘just when you thought it was safe to go back in the theatre…’

Personal appraisal and thoughts: ‘…we were radical and we were very scared, we didn’t know we were radical and didn’t know we had anything to say. And that was what was so extraordinary, there was a kind of a crest of a wave and we were on it and we didn’t ask to be put there, but we were just there and we represented our women’s thoughts and stories and feelings by using what was personal to us. It became you know, it became something that spoke to a lot of women, it was a political tool.’ ‘We were underground, you know we were dangerous, we were subversives and… just after we put our second show together we were investigated by the Special Patrol Group, which was Margaret Thatcher’s…they were a branch of the police that looked at political subversives…’ ‘We used to think, oh we’re laying out a new square one for people, a first step, they won’t have to go back and discover for themselves but I think every generation, at some level, has to discover this for themselves because it’s where you position yourself in relation to others…If we’ve contributed to something it’s been the opening up of a discourse, and perhaps if we’ve touched anybody, it’s the people who have been in the room with us at the same time that we’re performing…’ (Didi Hopkins)

It was fabulous fun and touring in your own bus and being given the privilege of expressing yourself and being paid for, who could ask for anything better? We were articulating what a lot of people were feeling in those times. We were breaking new ground with Operation Beryl and we’re all sorry that this is not the show we took to the Assembly Rooms, then the story would different. NB We needed management. (Claudia Boulton)

(Taken from the back page of Beryl and the Perils programme for Dead or Alive)

‘The Perils are canny performers, consistently entertaining and provocative. Not recommended for fans of the Three Degrees.’ (Time Out)
‘Their singing is marvellous. They have a freshness and spontaneity woefully lacking on the fringe in general.’ (Financial Times)
‘Their bad taste is deliberate.’ (Sunday Times)
‘Wildeste, bunteste und radikaiste.’ (Die Zeit)
‘I’m not easily shocked, but this show revolted me.’ (Evening Standard Letter Page)
‘With their raunchy comic book style, they aim to embarrass the parts other theatre groups don’t reach.’ (Time Out)
‘If you ever had doubts – this is the show to see to regain your strength. The energy and imagination that this company show can only be applauded.’ (Spare Rib)
‘They represent a kind of earthquake fault line under mainstream theatre.’  (Birmingham Evening Post)


Is Dennis Really the Menace?
Written: Devised by the company.
Cast: Claudia Boulton, Christine Ellerbeck, Didi Hopkins, Lauren Jana Marks
St Michael's Church, ICA, New End Theatre, Theatre 140, Islington Socialist Centre, St Paul's Portico, Stockholm Festival1978
Written: Devised by the company.
Cast: Claudia Boulton, Christine Ellerbeck, Didi Hopkins, Lauren Jana Marks
ICA, Midlands Art Centre, Theatre 140, Stockholm Festival, Melkweg, 1979
Got Nuilty?
Written: Best of show
Cast: Claudia Boulton, Winnie Caves, Didi Hopkins, Carey Davis, Reb Nassauer, Denise Stocklos - Europe
Claudia Boulton, Christine Ellerbeck and Didi Hopkins - New York
Europe - Holland, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Denmark
New York - Westbeth Theatre Centre, Theatre for the New City, Mud Club, CBGB's, WOW Festival.
1980 - Europe
1981 - New York
Beryl and the Perils in Space
Written: Devised by the company
Claudia Boulton, Didi Hopkins, Anna Sava, Ella Wilder
ICA, UK Arts Centres1982
Dead or Alive
Written: Devised by the original company
Claudia Boulton, Chrisitne Ellerbeck, Didi Hopkins
Albany Empire, Watermans, York Arts Centre, Assembly Rooms (1986)1985
Operation Beryl
Written: Devised by the company
Directed: Cordelia Ditton
Claudia Boulton, Didi Hopkins, Christine Ellerbeck
Half Moon Theatre1986

Interviewee link: Didi Hopkins and Claudia Boulton.

Existing archive material:
Didi Hopkins

Spare Rib – Edition 110 by Myrna Greenfield
Glasgow Herald, August 18th 1986.

Acknowledgements: This webpage was constructed by Lucie Regan from an interview with Didi Hopkins (Founder and Company Member 1978 – 1986) and Claudia Boulton (Founder and Company Member 1978 – 1986). Unfinished Histories would like to thank them for their generous time in helping us draw together the above material. November 2013

The creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.