Writer: Maxine Peake
Director: Rebecca Gatward
Designer: Naomi Dawson
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Maxine Peake’s play, Beryl, about the Morley-based cyclist Beryl Burton who dominated women’s cycling for more than two decades, was commissioned by West Yorkshire Playhouse to coincide with last year’s Tour de France. Such was its impact that it returned to the Playhouse with a different cast this year and has now embarked on the 10-week, 30-venue Tour de Beryl, a wonderful idea blending short runs in major theatres with single nights at village halls, from Swanland Village Hall to the Lowry at Salford.
Of course, in village halls and assembly rooms, the technical demands have to be lessened, but, on the spacious and well-equipped stage of Hull Truck, Mic Pool’s wizardry has every chance to shine and Naomi Dawson’s gloriously detailed set – a workshop to supply all needs – is on full display.
Rebecca Gatward’s direction perfectly matches Maxine Peake’s cunningly clever and deceptively simple script, not least in its combination of technical trickery with the sense of amateurish improvisation. In reality, there is nothing in the least amateurish about it.
The whole thing is founded on the premise that four actors have been hired to put on a play about Beryl Burton and, astonishingly, they know nothing about her. Or is it astonishing? It seems that she really is a strangely forgotten figure, though she died less than 20 years ago, won any number of world titles, set her last British record in the eighties and still holds one British record. What that shows about the lack of attention to women in sport or to cycling in general in the sixties and seventies is less important here than the almost missionary zeal that fills Beryl alongside a great sense of fun. It feels as if Peake, Gatward and the cast want the ovations to be for Beryl Burton herself.
Certainly she was a truly inspiring figure, if sometimes difficult in her obsessive pursuit of excellence. The play takes us on a tour of her childhood illness (15 months’ hospitalisation with rheumatic fever), her heart irregularity, both of which lead to suggestions that an active life is beyond her, her financial limitations (having to ride to races before competing) and her determination to prove wrong all those who doubted her. The downside of her compulsion to be the best appears when her daughter, Denise, also a cycling champion, narrowly defeats her and she refuses to shake her hand.
The play is a cartoon-like romp through Beryl’s life that never leaves the audience in doubt that its subject is to be taken seriously, a perilously difficult control of tone that writer, director and cast handle perfectly. The genuine hard miles the cast put in on static bikes help to convince that this is for real, even when Matthew Ganley is switching crazily from hard man rhubarb grower to Beryl’s gran or from German policeman to H.M. The Queen.
Even Samantha Power, a powerfully focussed Beryl, has fun as a snobby teacher and a sexy nurse in the early scenes. Rebecca Ryan runs the gamut from Beryl’s young self to Denise at various ages via many of Beryl’s rivals and the occasional (very funny) testosterone-filled youth. Lee Tombes, sincerely underplayed as Beryl’s husband, enjoys his naughty boy scenes with Ganley immensely and has perfected the art of backwards running when pursuing a static bicycle.
All are excellent. The play is unfailingly entertaining and, ultimately, extremely moving.
Touring until 28 November 2015
Related article: Interview with Samantha Power