Beryl Burton was not born to be a great athlete, she became perhaps the greatest cyclist that Britain has ever produced by sheer hard work and force of will at a time when cycling- however good you were- did not bring huge fame and money. Maxine Peake’s play, Beryl, tells her life story, showing us how an ordinary Yorkshire lass without the advantages of money or good health became someone truly remarkable. I don’t believe in the trite adage that “you can achieve anything that you want to” but Beryl’s story is enough to make you wonder.
The writing itself, which is cleverly structured and well done, but not especially memorable in itself, does a simple job of telling a story which is well worth hearing. What does make the play memorable is the stagecraft and the teamwork of the four actors. Samanth Power, Rebecca Ryan, John Elkington and Dominic Gately. They get the tone exactly right, down to earth, sparky and friendly. It is harder to bring off than it seems, full of quick timing, hard physical work, fast changes of mood and technical details which the actors need to be aware of. The writing uses this aspect of the play self-consciously and it is full of wit and charm. Alongside this we need to see real, believable characters who we can get behind, or it might have seemed an empty technical exercise, and right from the start, smiling at us as they get things ready, the cast make sure that we are on their side. Beryl herself is a gift of a part and Samantha Power is both likeable and engaging- a convincing embodiment of everything that we hear talked about. Take away the cycling and there really isn’t much drama in Beryl’s life. She was poorly with Rheumatic fever as a child, worked incredibly hard to achieve and maintain fitness, had a long, happy marriage and a daughter who followed in her footsteps. She finally died on her bike at the age of 59 having pushed herself to the limit all her life. The drama within the cycling, which has to be at the heart of the play, is cleverly staged using back projection and real bikes on stands and it works beautifully. This is down to some really clever direction from Rebecca Gatward which is at least as important as the writing- not something that can be said often.
This is an unashamed tribute to someone who thoroughly deserves it, a roll call of a life well lived and her considerable achievements. One of Beryl’s records still stands today in spite of all the advantages of modern cycling. We were not just applauding a piece of theatre at the end, we were applauding the spirit of a great Yorkshire woman and there’s nothing we like doing better than that here in Yorkshire.