Writer: Maxine Peake
Director: Gemma Fairlie
Reviewer: Carol Lovatt
It seems fitting to write a review of Beryl by Maxine Peake on International Women’s Day. The world-beating cyclist Beryl Burton from Yorkshire, was a woman who soared to incredible sporting highs at a time when women were not taken seriously in the competitive cycling world, In fact, it was Beryl Burton who put British female cycling on the map yet ironically, very few remember her name. Beryl aims to redress that balance.
Born in Yorkshire in 1937, Beryl Charnock was an ordinary working class girl who had it drilled into her that unless she passed her 11-plus exam and went to grammar school she would amount to nothing. Unfortunately, illness prevented her doing just that and the psychological disappointment she endured left an indelible mark on her. Later, in her teenage years, Beryl fell in love with a man who would change her perspective of the world through cycling and it was this activity which provided a passion which would fuel her desire to prove the doubters wrong and enable her to realise that she could actually achieve great things in life.
Gemma Fairlie has directed a gem of a production and pulls out all the stops to create a totally absorbing story which is incredibly physical, blatantly funny and deeply moving. The stage is a visual treat with artistic placing of the cycling machine in all its manifestations and a creative movable set that lends itself to improvisation and the imagination. The story is about the mode of transport just as much as the leading lady herself.
Maxine Peake has made her name as an actress who is greatly admired for her ability to fully absorb herself into a role and as such, she understands the requisites of a script which will engage and enthral and as the writer of Beryl, she has achieved both. It is a gritty, Northern story of the power of circumstance and belief and it is a dream vehicle for the cast to immerse themselves in and the strong cast of four do just that.
Hannah Edwards is back at the New Vic playing young Beryl and a whole host of other characters. Edwards is a raw talent who is incredibly distinctive in her ability to portray vulnerability with a comedic element and she’s very adept at fusing her roles to create a seamless continuity which she does so effortlessly. Lucy Tuck plays the adult Beryl and she is outstanding in her portrayal of a woman who was determined, complex and humble. Tuck is very believable and she enacts the role with visceral steeliness. Robin Simpson plays Charlie Burton, Beryl’s husband and rock.
They say that behind every successful man there is a woman but in Beryl’s case, it was the opposite with Charlie foregoing his own cycling ambitions to propel his talented wife to phenomenal success. Simpson is funny, poignant, exasperated and steadfast in his ability to portray a man who was sacrificial and proud but at the same time, realistic and fair. Simpson is an actor who is both moving and amusing. Rob Witcomb excels in his multitude of characters, he is hugely funny in his depiction of so many key figures that came in and out of Beryl’s eventful life. Witcomb’s portrayal of the Queen is a classic and his improvisation on stage is supported by perfect timing and a very watchable persona.
Beryl is a clever play that marries a fascinating narrative with creative adaptation and a powerful message emphasising that anything is possible if one really wants it and works at it. Let’s hope that it will rekindle the legend that was Beryl Burton so that people really do remember her name.
Runs until 18 March 2017 | Image: Contributed