The REP Studio, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th November, 2015
Going in, I felt a little guilty for not knowing who Beryl Burton was. Mercifully, Maxine Peake’s affectionate portrait of the cycling star assuages such feelings from the get-go: cast members fess up to never having heard of her before either.
So begins a race through Beryl Burton’s life story, beginning with childhood (including serious illness) to meeting her future husband and joining his cycling club. Charlie Burton becomes her soigneur, coach and mechanic. Gradually, Beryl’s wins stack up, world records are broken, an MBE… an OBE… And yet she was largely ignored by the national press at the time. The same treatment of women’s sport still lingers to this day, forty years on, it has to be said – although things have improved with some disciplines like women’s football.
A cast of four deliver Peake’s consistently amusing script – the blend of humour and heart make her something of a Yorkshire Victoria Wood. Each actor shares the narration and plays several parts, displaying versatility with apparent ease. Samantha Powell plays Beryl with down-to-earth determination while Lee Toomes is her ever-supportive husband Charlie. Rebecca Ryan is both Beryl as a child and Beryl’s daughter Denise, who herself becomes something of a name in cycling, while Matthew Ganley is very funny in a variety of roles that includes an air stewardess and a German policeman.
It’s all fast-paced and energetic, and slicker than a wet road. Director Rebecca Gatward employs a range of theatrical conventions to enhance the storytelling, keeping the visuals varied. Lighting (David Holmes) and sound and video (Mic Pool) help the cast convey the idea of cycling in a range of conditions and circumstances. The onstage bicycles may be static but the staging certainly is not. It’s a story of good old British pluck and success through dogged determination, persistence and support. Our admiration for Beryl grows in tandem with our awareness of her remarkable achievements.
Sweet and funny, this production puts a smile on your face right from the start and keeps it there.