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Beryl – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer: Maxine Peake

Director: Rebecca Gatward

Reviewer: Katie Lee

“There’s no one like cycling folk” is Beryl Burton’s comment to a young fan as she encourages her to join a cycling club, and with the Grand Depart of the Tour de France imminent in Leeds, what better way to celebrate than to commission this empowering story of ‘love at first bike’. This play is part of the Yorkshire Festival and is an adaptation of Maxine Peake’s original version for radio, as heard on BBC Radio 4 in 2012. It may be Peake’s stage writing debut but she is no stranger to drama, with rôles in Shameless and Red Riding leading to becoming an associate artist at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester.

The original version was recorded in the saddle at various locations around Saddleworth and Harrogate, with contributions from Burton’s husband Charlie and daughter Denise, alongside local residents. This is reflected in the action, with the majority of the play taking place on or around stationary bikes, which almost become characters in their own right. This also gives a feeling of authenticity, presenting Burton’s life as a series of anecdotes from her nearest and dearest. Locations are presented by projected country lanes and postcards, with an array of DIY sound effects to support the ambience.

This is a well observed four-hander, where the cast work inextricably as a team in order to bring to life the many characters in Burton’s life. Actors regularly play against gender evoking the fact that Burton stood equally with her male counterparts, even beating them at times. When one person is taking the lead, another is supporting through animating props, sounding bells, or otherwise. Chelsea Halfpenny is absurdly funny in all her parts, enjoying the exaggerated stereotype of ‘being a bloke’ before switching to a young schoolgirl or doctor. There is a point where the events portrayed seem like a never-ending list of the cyclist’s achievements, but since this is a real story, it can’t be changed, and akin to real life, there is always a downward part of the curve.

The actors acknowledge that they hadn’t heard of Burton before they auditioned, which soon becomes a running joke. Indeed it seems obligatory that this athlete’s story is brought forward into public consciousness, if just to ensure that female cyclists have inspiration on offer alongside the entirely male peloton soon to cross through the town. As the audience rise into a standing ovation, it becomes clear that this story of a local champion combined with a heart-warming script and choice cast has definitely caught the attention of this jam-packed house, and deservedly so.

Runs until: 19th July

Photo Credit:Keith Pattison

Writer: Maxine Peake Director: Rebecca Gatward Reviewer: Katie Lee “There's no one like cycling folk” is Beryl Burton's comment to a young fan as she encourages her to join a cycling club, and with the Grand Depart of the Tour de France imminent in Leeds, what better way to celebrate than to commission this empowering story of 'love at first bike'. This play is part of the Yorkshire Festival and is an adaptation of Maxine Peake's original version for radio, as heard on BBC Radio 4 in 2012. It may be Peake's stage writing debut but she is no stranger…

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.