Writer: Maxine Peake
Director: Chris Lawson
Yorkshire born Beryl Burton dominated women’s cycling for three decades from the 1950s to the 1970s. In her cycling career she achieved many track and world race titles, held British and world records, and was awarded the MBE and OBE. Outside the world of cycling, Beryl’s compelling and engaging life story was largely forgotten until actress turned playwright, Maxine Peake, read her autobiography, Personal Best and decided to bring it to the stage. First performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse to coincide with the start of the 2014 Tour de France, Beryl has gone on to enjoy widespread acclaim and this latest version at the Coliseum Theatre does not disappoint and is a worthy addition to the many successful productions that have preceded it.
At the beginning of the play the talented quartet of actors declare that Beryl Burton was a “wife, mother, Yorkshire woman and cyclist.” During the ensuing two hours Beryl’s life story is told in short, snappy, entertaining vignettes that show her as a young girl falling in love with cycling, meeting her devoted husband Charlie, and despite a weakened heart (the result of a childhood bout of rheumatic fever) becoming arguably the greatest female cyclist the sport has ever seen.
For this production, director Chris Lawson has assembled a first-rate cast who not only play a heightened version of themselves as storytellers but also perform multiple characters ranging from doctors and teachers to Beryl’s competitors and fiercest rivals. The two stand out performances are given by Elizabeth Twells as the adult Beryl and James Lewis as Charlie. Twells is excellent, she combines great physicality with a strong emotional range and is at her finest when playing Beryl at her lowest ebb facing setbacks in both her personal life and cycling career. Lewis is the perfect partner for Twells, as Charlie he conveys love and stoicism with a twinkle in his eye and a reassuring smile. Local actress Tori Burgess excels in a variety of roles, impressing greatly as the young Beryl, and Charlie Ryan playing a series of cartoon like characters displays great versatility and comic timing.
The many different locations and settings in the play are brilliantly evoked by Irene Jade’s set, which part velodrome and garage dominates the Coliseum stage. The set is suitably adorned with cycle wheels of various sizes and pieces of wooden cycle track. Grant Archer’s arresting projections and video vividly bring the induvial scenes to life as do Eliyana Evans’ pulsating sound design and Will Evans’ evocative lighting.
That the cast and director have a deep held respect for both the play and Beryl Burton is clear. This outstanding production is wrapped with love and deep affection throughout. As well as being a theatrical tour de force, this is a long overdue tribute to a true sporting legend and an amazing woman.
Runs until Saturday 21 May