There’s nothing like a good Cycle Drama. Literally nothing, I think, as I cannot recall any show that deals with the bicycle or bicyclists (I’m sure someone will prompt me if I’m wrong). And here we have an eponymous hero that no-one has heard of.
Beryl Burton, cyclist extraordinaire, played with superb intensity by Samantha Power, takes us through the whole gamut of emotions from the fragile fears of a sick child, lacking in confidence but never belief, through to the self-assured arrogance of the serial winner – taking in the emotional roller-coaster of motherhood along the way. The play makes much of the fact that Beryl, the greatest female sportsman ever to emerge from these shores, and arguably the greatest female cyclist in history, remained largely anonymous in the UK – the first person to amusingly recognise her at the height of her fame is a German policeman.
But her record can’t be toyed with: nor can her guts, determination, strength, will-power, endurance and, yes, that all-conquering self-belief.
Maxine Peake’s play is a wonderful piece of theatre. The subject matter, on first sight, doesn’t look very promising: unheard of cyclist wins 25 mile time trial 25 years in a row. But the audience is caught right at the beginning, is drawn into a highly specialised world of wheels and brakes and derailleur gears (with some rhubarb thrown in for good measure) and we remain captivated throughout, inspired by Beryl’s monumental achievements and the sheer physical brutality of the sport, faced-down by a top class athlete, totally without financial recompense – achievement and glory the sole motivators.
First performed at the Yorkshire Playhouse to coincide with Le Grand Depart in that county in 2014, director Rebecca Gatward has taken the rough-edged stone lobbed at her by Peake and has shaped into a glistening gem, nurdling and cajoling an excellent troupe of four to produce a brilliant Tour De Fr… (sorry) Force. There is plenty of humour in this witty script and Power is brilliantly supported by the rest of the cast. Charlie (Lee Toomes), Beryl’s mechanic, corner-man, shoulder-to-cry-on, husband and biggest supporter, presents an admirable mix of stoicism, pragmatism and Beryl-fandomism. A top cyclist’s life is wall-to-wall peddle-grind but Charlie shows us that there was much warmth, love and laughter in their relationship and family: daughter Denise, played with much gusto and mirth by Rebecca Ryan, is clearly a chip off the old block which becomes problematic when she finally beats her mother in a race. Here we are shown a powerful glimpse of the grittier side of family life that anchors the play firmly in everyday normality rather than just the rarefied atmosphere of top sport.
Dominic Gately plays a whole host of roles with panache and no little humour, seemingly able to draw squeals of delight from the audience with the slightest flick of the head. I seriously hope that I never meet his Air Hostess on a ’plane. The ensemble playing is highly effective with all four performers taking several roles and completing a full-on gym session on the bikes: a genius idea to use turbos so that everyone can cycle frantically away without riding off the edge of the stage. Every race is handled differently with David Holmes’s lighting design playing a key part combined with a sound design that ranged from subtle to in-yer-ears.
At first sight Designer Naomi Dawson’s set design, the interior of a bike workshop with a large back-wall partly adorned with dangling bike bits, seemed a bit sparse.
That is until the wall was revealed as a massive projection screen with buildings, stadia and film of Yorkshire lanes as a backdrop to the cyclists pedalling for their lives on stage. This is a highly effective device and Dawson and Sound and Video Designer Mic Pool deserve great credit for creating the means to bring the sport to life.
After dealing with Beryl’s death at the age of 59, the final scene gives us drama at its simplest and best. Beryl’s achievements are listed by the actors as they set out her trophies around her bike, retrieving them from drawers and benches and shelves throughout the set. It’s a lump-in-the-throat moment that gives us the essence of what made Beryl great: Yorkshire grit; national pride; an iron will; and, as she said herself, “There’s nothing like cycling folk”.
Whilst cycling is the setting here and sport supplies the raison d’être, Peake’s play is, at heart, a love story, tender, caring, down-to-earth and totally un-Hollywood. Though, I have to confess I am not too sure whether the love affair is between Beryl and Charlie or Beryl and her bike.
Review by Peter Yates
Written by Maxine Peake
A West Yorkshire Playhouse production in association with Rose Theatre Kingston
The Greatest Woman on Two Wheels
Following huge critical and popular acclaim, Maxine Peake’s stage writing debut comes to the Rose for its London Premiere in March.
Maxine Peake’s funny and heart-warming play celebrates the life of sporting legend Beryl Burton – the greatest woman on two wheels. When Beryl Charnock met keen cyclist Charlie Burton she was smitten, not only with Charlie but by the thrill and freedom she found on her bike.
It was the beginning of a journey that would see Beryl push herself to the extreme, on the track and off, to achieve true sporting greatness. With the unyielding support of her husband and daughter, this tenacious Yorkshire woman overcame serious illness and defied social expectation to become one of Britain’s best cyclists of all time. She dominated the sport throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, becoming five-time world champion and best British allrounder for 25 consecutive years. Beryl was determined to make her mark on the world. And she did.
Beryl Burton MBE, OBE, wife and mother cycled her way into the record books becoming world record holder and former British record holder, and with a determination to be the best she always cycled home a hero.
Nominated for best new play in the Manchester Theatre Awards.
Tuesday 8th March to Saturday 19th March 2016