“I’d never heard of Beryl Burton til I got this job”, said an actor half in character on stage.
A tongue in cheek remark, it was this exact lack of current public knowledge about Britain’s greatest female cyclist that inspired the first ever full length production about her life, which was performed at Lawrence Batley Theatre this week.
Written by renowned Salford actress Maxine Peake, Beryl delved into the life of the extraordinary working class Morley woman, who claimed somewhere in the region of 100 national and international trophies and set breaking a national record that has not been beaten by another woman to this day.
It was the on stage Kraftwerk soundtrack that set the tone for the engrossing, heart thumping and accurate docu-drama, with sharp wit as fast as Beryl’s, nee Charnock, pace.
Only four multi-role playing actors were needed to tell her tale, which saw rise from a young child who suffered from rheumatic fever and heart problems.
The appropriately-named Samantha Power shines in the exhausting role of Beryl, in which she travelled around 10km during the play on one of four bikes attached to a turbo trainer.
She captured the stubborn and dedicated nature of the cyclist, through her energetic performance, which begins when Beryl first meets her future husband, Charlie Burton on a stage daubed in bike parts that served during the scenes as an office, home, farm and race track.
A mixture of pictures and rolling film to enable the audience to watch her train on the country roads and compete adds to the setting and enables them to feel like they are travelling on her successful journey with her.
The backdrops added to the times of Power as Beryl’s own anxiousness at large events and the sheer frustration when she does not get first place, the only position Powers made her appear to have been happy to get.
Lee Toomes captures the selfless and supportive spirit of Charlie with his kindly and hearty demeanour, who encourages her to become a member of Morley Cycle Club and sacrifices his own cycling to travel with her around Britain and abroad to competitions.
Meanwhile Shameless child star Rebecca Ryan captures the undying competitive streak of Beryl at a young age, as well as taking on a comic role as Beryl’s daughter and cyclist, Denise, who demonstrates the hurt felt by her when she faces the sharp edge of her mum’s ambitious streak.
Matthew Ganley, takes on equally convincing roles such as her pushy trainer and narky police officer.
Together, they pepper the plot with wry jokes, some of which, like the out of character incident in which Toomes tries to construct a sidecar for Denise out of a wooden pallet which she has to pretend to move by rotating a wheel, comically swipe at the cuts to the arts by the Conservative Government.
Others provide interesting facts about Beryl’s life and the context in which she lived.
Through the whole play it is clear that Peake has gone above and beyond to research the life of this wonderful woman, who now hopefully can be re-entered into the annals of history as someone to be proud of for generations to come.
Let us hope that the play captures the attention of these younger people, who could be inspired by Beryl’s story to follow their dreams, even if it means defying all the odds.
Beryl was shown as part of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Tour de Beryl.
It can next be caught in the area at Cast in Doncaster from November 19 to 21.<p/> <p/> <p/> <p/>