Beryl is a celebration, a beautiful tribute to Beryl Burton – one of the greatest racing cyclists of all time – and an amazing work of research.
It all started when Maxine Peake (the writer) received a copy of Beryl’s autobiography from her boyfriend. She fell in love with the cyclist’s journey: from being a Yorkshire little girl, who was told she had to quit sports due to health matters, to becoming a worldwide recognised athlete and champion.
What you can expect is a biographical, almost documental experience. Beryl’s life is told in detail from birth to death. If you’ve never heard of her, you will discover the odyssey of this determined woman. If, however, you are familiar with her achievements, you will certainly learn some personal and surprising details.
The actors multiply themselves into many characters and narrators and their versatility is impressive. They have to change their accents, their costumes and their objectives very quickly and they are very good at doing that. Moreover, some technical details are also executed by the actors, so these are really busy evenings for them. The play is fast-paced, and so is the speed of cycling that happens on stage. There is a lot of cycling, especially for Samantha Power (playing Beryl) who sweats and increases her heart rate many times within these two hours.
Rebecca Gatward, the director, finds clever solutions. It would be risky to stage so many races in the same way, therefore it is relieving that every race has a different idea. The video projection that accompanies these moments is really beautiful and brings some magic on stage. Using slow motion, or creating sounds with the bicycles, are elements that really worked because of their originality and the brilliant performance of the actors. Creativity is definitely one of the key-words to define Beryl. And so is humour – there are lots of funny moments, even though they are light. The jokes are easy, although sometimes a little bit basic.
I can’t help feeling, though, that there is no space left for the audience’s imagination. Everything is given. The scenes are illustrating all the time what is being said, and I don’t think there’s a need for that. There are too many props, too many pictures projected, too much information. I know it is a biographical piece we are referring to, but the magic of the kind of theatre that leaves some gaps for you to fill is a big lack in this show. I wish there was more simplicity, more silence, more pause…
Another topic that doesn’t work very well is the fact that all the themes of Beryl’s life are treated in the same way, as if they have the same weight in her biography. On the one hand, that is an impartial approach to the story; on the other hand, there are moments that need more time to be developed and understood. For instance, it is not very clear what Beryl’s relationship with her daughter and husband really becomes along the way.
Finally, I think there is a forced attempt to make this plot sound epic. Burton was certainly an inspiring woman, who is an example for her determination and who fought really hard to achieve what she dreamt about. Nevertheless, there are several similar stories, either in the sports field or others. Therefore, the story by itself is powerful and brings a strong message, so highlighting that all the time becomes unnecessary.
Beryl is playing at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 19 March For more information and tickets, see the Rose Theatre website.