Beryl, West Yorkshire Playhouse, review: A high quality local drama


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The Independent Culture

It is fascinating to think what we would make of Beryl Burton had she been racing today, the benefactor of sponsorship deals, personal appearances, endless TV interviews and relentless media exposure.

Luckily we are able to recall instead a Yorkshire housewife who bankrolled her passion for cycling out of her husband Charlie’s pay packet, rode to races on her own bike and built her stamina working on a rhubarb farm.

Having overcome childhood illness and been written off by her teachers Beryl was determined to make her mark on the world. And so she did.

The only problem was that in the days before Team Sky and the advent of Sir Wiggo, cycling was regarded at best as a minority pursuit and at worst an insidious continental pastime looked down on by the football, cricket and athletics dominated sporting establishment.

Beryl’s extraordinary achievements over more than a quarter of a decade in the saddle were largely ignored – perhaps because women’s cycling did not feature in the Olympics until she was 47.  But not anymore.

The arrival of the Tour de France in Yorkshire has rekindled interest in Britain’s greatest ever cyclist, who died in 1986 whilst out on her bike delivering birthday invitations for her 60th birthday.

Maxine Peake’s affectionate sprint through her life presents Burton as true Yorkshire grit, an exemplar of the Corinthian spirit who devoted her life to the sport she loved.

She never forsook her native Morley, not that she had much choice as in those days there was no money in cycling no matter how good you were.

Whilst the play rarely skims much beneath the surface of someone who must have been an extraordinarily competitive and determined individual, Beryl offers a charming entre into the sport and the legend of its greatest female practitioner.

The excellent four-strong cast employ some entertaining stagecraft to enliven a good-natured piece directed by Rebecca Gatward, which in less assured hands might have descended into a po-faced hagiography. 

There are some brilliant moments. Beryl, played by an utterly convincing Penny Layden, and husband Charlie, the excellent John Elkington, travel to East Germany to perform at the 1960 World Championships in Leipzig to discover that though unknown in her own country she is an international sporting superstar abroad albeit one who can’t afford the breakfast at the hotel.

In a later gripping encounter she embarks on an epic 12 hour cycling duel across Yorkshire with Britain’s leading male rider Mike McNamara famously overtaking him and offering him a Liquorice Allsorts as she passes. His reply “Ta, love”, is the honest acceptance that the better athlete who just happens to be a women.

The character of Burton obviously resonates strongly with Peake – strong, female northern and working class – and the commissioning of the piece, which forms part of the 100-day Yorkshire Festival to mark the Grand Depart offers a high quality local drama which clearly resonated with an appreciative hometown audience.