There are a lot of heroes in our world that a fair few people haven’t heard of. Take cycling legend Beryl Burton, for example – while she may have been one of the most determined and hardworking cyclists to have ever lived, she’s not exactly known to a lot of people. However, Maxine Peake’s new stage play Beryl, adapted from her radio play that premiered on BBC Radio Four in 2012, aims to educate audiences on the hard work that Burton put into her cycling, along with the obstacles and challenges she faced on her journey through life. With Yorkshire currently being a hive of cycling activity, it seems very appropriate that the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, becomes the home of Peake’s new play for a little while, along with an interesting exhibition on the sport itself.
Beryl follows the story of, yep, you guessed it, Beryl Charnock, who later became known as Beryl Burton after marrying her husband, Charlie. The play opens in 1947, with Burton’s humble beginnings as a rather boisterous young girl determined to push herself. We see Burton sit her eleven-plus exam, only to collapse just after its start. She ends up in hospital and is told she has an infection affecting her nervous system and needs to take it easy. As the story progresses, we soon find out that taking it easy was the last thing on Burton’s mind, and it isn’t long before the audience is taken on an energetic, fast-paced journey through the Yorkshire Dales, sports arenas abroad and awards ceremonies. The story details important events in her life, from her victory over cyclist Mike McNamara to her last race that cemented her legendary status.
The play is simple yet innovative, and the story of the Leeds-born cyclist is told through an ensemble of just four actors. You’d think that with the amount of people Burton encountered in her life you’d require a whole company, but the ensemble really does tell her story with ease and finesse. The group assume the roles of a multitude of engaging and contrasting characters that help to build up the world of the play. The occasional use of projections of moving roads and images of Beryl also help to flesh out this world, while the ensemble regularly interact with the audience to continuously engage them and connect with them.
That’s the main success behind Beryl – it never takes itself too seriously as a piece of theatre, which reflects the very down to earth, humble attitude that Beryl herself is said to have had. Yet, it still manages to convey some pretty beefy themes, such as gender equality, and manages to engage the audience. The way Peake has written it allows the company to be flexible and charming in the way they tell the cyclist’s story, so that even if you’re not a particularly sporty person, like me, you’re still engaged and can properly connect with the characters and the narrative.
Beryl, like the woman it portrays, is a real gem. It’s simple and effective, and does what I think theatre is best at doing – taking the audience on an emotional and powerful journey, and introducing them to places and people they may never have encountered or even heard of. Beryl herself was something of an unsung hero, but this play certainly makes sure that you know all about the cycling legend by the end of it, and is a real treat and joy to watch.
Beryl is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 19 July. For more information and tickets, see the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.