Writer: Maxine Peake
Director: Kimberley Sykes
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
An all-time cycling legend, Yorkshire-born Beryl Burton’s list of achievements is extraordinary; winning more than ninety national championships, seven world titles and even surpassing every male rider in a 12-hour time trial, setting a women’s record that stood for an incredible fifty years. Despite such a remarkable career, Burton remains largely unheard of. Actress turned playwright Maxine Peake seeks to put this right in Beryl and the result is a funny, inspiring and thoroughly entertaining play that serves as a well-deserved tribute to an unsung sporting great.
Burton’s success is all the more impressive given the obstacles she overcame along the way. After a bout of rheumatic fever aged 10 she spent nine months in hospital and was later diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Told by Doctors that any strenuous exercise was out of the question, Beryl is spurred on to prove everyone wrong and to silence the doubting voices that tell her she what she can and can’t do. Additionally, a lack of government investment in the sport meant that despite her professional triumphs she faced a constant struggle for funding, often returning with a trophy but financially out of pocket.
Director Kimberley Sykes’s production is fast-paced and absorbing. A cast of only four play multiple roles and using over 250 props they transform with ease; even characters that only appear fleetingly make a big impression and the energy levels never let up.
Vicky Binns gives a committed and passionate performance as Beryl, capturing fully her relentless drive and determination to succeed. The faster she pedals, the more the audience is swept along in her story and you desperately root for her even when the outcome is already clear.
Whilst paying tribute to Beryl, Peake’s script also warmly celebrates the other people that contributed to her success, from the camaraderie of her local cycling club to her dependable husband Charlie. It is he who introduces her to the sport but in recognising her talent is greater than his, he continues to provide steadfast and dedicated support throughout her life. Chris Jack is charming in the role and he and Binns form an immediate and believable bond that centres the play, even as he also amusingly transforms into a smitten suitor to their daughter Denise.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst brightly portrays Denise from crying new-born to accomplished fellow cyclist and is heartrending and touching as Young Beryl when she first falls ill. Completing the cast, Matthew Heywood makes a superb professional debut with a dizzying array of roles that he wrings every drop of humour out of.
The cast occasionally break character to speak directly to the audience; explaining cycling terms, providing significant moments of narration or wryly poking fun at each others exaggerated comic performances. Perhaps not all of these moments are necessary but nevertheless, it creates a warm connection between performers and spectators which is well suited to the intimate setting of Bolton Library. It is a small and admittedly cramped space, but Sykes ensures it is put to full use, with the action spilling out into all areas and creating an inclusive, enthusiastic atmosphere.
Designer Bretta Gerecke does a lot with very little and there is an eclectic soundtrack including pop hits and opera, with the latter being more to Beryl’s personal taste.
Full of humour and heart, Beryl honours its eponymous heroine and builds to a moving and poignant conclusion. The cast are first-rate and full of seemingly unlimited energy and this, combined with an inspirational, feel-good story creates an enjoyable and surprisingly enthralling piece of theatre.
If you haven’t heard of Beryl Burton before, Beryl leaves a lasting impression that ensures she will not be forgotten.
Runs until 19th October 2019 | Image: Jonathan Keenan