Triumphantly delivered with energy and pride Beryl is a northern masterpiece. Let me begin by expressing how wonderfully refreshing it is to see regional theatre giving London a run for its money. It is becoming rarer and rarer to hear northern voices in the theatre and on television, with even great northern actresses like Sheridan Smith, Suranne Jones and this play’s very writer Maxine Peake often converting to Received Pronunciation for many characters. But this play is northern and proud.
The play is based on the life of Beryl Burton, a female cycling champion who most people will never have heard of before seeing this production, myself included. From childhood to death, this play follows her journey through discovering her love for cycling in her late teens, through to her becoming World Champion 25 years in a row. It is an unknown tale of the unknown champion.
The play itself is casual in its delivery, with the actors breaking out of character to talk to the audience or share an amusing joke with one another on stage. It is very much four actors telling us a story; the whole thing is most effective. Full of comedy, touching moments and a cracking story, there is something in this play for everyone to enjoy and I completely understand why Peake has received much acclaim for this piece in the past.
From the moment the four actors enter, the energy is electric. I am amazed, what with the amount of cycling and physical movement in this piece, that they manage to sustain themselves so well throughout. All recognisable as four of the faces in the hit TV programme Shameless, Matthew Ganley, Lee Toomes, Samantha Power and Rebecca Ryan each take on the various characters that make up the story that tells Beryl Burton’s life. Ganley multi-roles several hilarious character, including a doctor, a mother-in-law and the Queen, each gaining more and more outbursts of laughter from the audience and each becoming more heightened and comical. Toomes’s roles include a variety of young school boys, each with wonderfully different and enthusiastic characteristics. His key role is that of Beryl’s dedicated husband Charlie: his performance is sympathetic, authentic and detailed, creating a clear and beautiful character with whom the audience fall in love for his pure optimism and everlasting support for his successful wife.
Samantha Power and Rebecca Ryan each play Beryl at different stages of her life. Ryan takes on the cyclist during her time as a young teen and we also get the pleasure of seeing her play many characters, energetically brought to life and hilariously delivered, Ryan’s comic timing is on point throughout and she easily holds her own, being the youngest of this experienced cast. Power takes the bulk of responsibility for portraying Beryl through her journey to success, showing us the highs and lows that every champion goes through. She is an exemplary actor with so much strength and conviction that I was completely blown away by her performance. She was utterly convincing, not to mention immensely physically fit to endure the amount of cycling this part required. This is the strongest cast of actors I have seen perform together and it is evident how much each one of them enjoys telling this story.
This is a West Yorkshire Playhouse production and I must also give huge credit to director Rebecca Gatward for some spectacularly innovative ways of delivering the scenes. Constantly changing and never dull, each section is creatively worked to incorporate different and unusual story telling methods, leaving it feeling fresh and exciting to watch.
Beryl played at the Cast Theatre until 21 November. For more information and tickets, see the Cast Theatre website.