23 September 2019.
Octagon Theatre, Bolton at Bolton Library Theatre.
Beryl Burton. Wife, mother, Yorkshire woman, cyclist.
Who? Never heard of her? You’re probably not alone. Maxine Peake’s play starts with the premise that Beryl is not that well-known, undeservedly so, and sets about putting that right. Along the way, it also explores what drove her to dizzying heights of success as a champion cyclist.
On stage, there’s an old fashioned carousel slide projector plugged in and ready to go. Fortunately, however, this isn’t going to be a dusty and stuffy lecture. Before things get started, cast members are already whizzing around the space, chatting with people as they arrive, moving things about and even offering out liquorice allsorts.
That restless energy, cheerful informality and constant motion underpin the show but when it comes to the details of Beryl’s life they’re revealed in a straight no-nonsense chronological line – from childhood illness to adult romance, success as a cyclist, family life and then even greater sporting acclaim.
Early setbacks are pivotal in spurring Beryl on to achieve great things. A debilitating bout of St Vitus’s Dance in childhood disrupts her plans for academic success and leaves her with a weakened heart. Being told by teachers that she will make nothing of her life, and warned by doctors to avoid vigorous exercise and physical exertion, doesn’t hold her back. If anything she seems determined to prove them wrong. She’s gloriously bloody-minded and unwilling to have limitations imposed upon her, vehemently declaring “I know my body and I know my mind“.
As if to emphasise Beryl’s deep attachment to cycling, the production cheekily depicts her on two wheels during most of the key moments in her life – getting married, in a hospital bed recuperating after an accident, and even giving birth.
That cycling becomes the outlet for her frustrated sense of ambition is due to a chance encounter with bike-mad Charlie Burton. The man she eventually marries becomes not just a husband, but also her mechanic, coach and best friend. Their relationship is depicted with beautifully understated tenderness. As Beryl’s skills as a cyclist begin to eclipse his own, we see Chris Jack’s Charlie touch her gently on her back as if willing her forward, and then waving her off with a proud smile on his face as she disappears off into the distance.
Beryl’s achievements are hard-won on so many levels, and the play doesn’t shy away from the personal cost to the Burtons. There’s back-breaking work on a rhubarb farm to fund the cost of competitive cycling, time away from family, and endless scrimping and saving. In the background, Andy Graham’s clever sound design hints at another pressure. Time can be heard ticking away and counting down in various guises, and occasionally there’s an insistent heartbeat. Beryl’s life is a race against the clock in more ways than one.
Maxine Peake’s script emphasises the huge camaraderie and support that Beryl found within both her cycling club and the local community. Director Kimberley Sykes sees strong parallels with her company of actors, and she wraps another narrative layer around the production highlighting their resourceful collective efforts to tell a multi-character, decades-spanning, globe-trotting story with only four performers, a limited budget and a small space.
Bretta Gerecke’s imaginative design reinforces that idea, putting ‘behind the scenes’ on full display, with a big props table to the right of the action, further items cluttered across the stage, and costume changes taking place within the auditorium. It all has a certain naive charm. With the aid of simple items such as a quickly donned hat, wonkily projected press-cutting or handy wooden crate, the hardworking cast conjure up new people, places and things with rapid ease. Even the audience find themselves co-opted in as extras, cheerfully waving flags and shouting encouragement as if we are in the stadium at a championship race. It can all get a bit silly at times, enjoyably so, but not at any expense to the main narrative.
If anything, that additional dynamic draws the audience more closely into Beryl’s story. As the cast members step back to marvel at her achievements and take great pleasure in sharing them with us, it’s hard not to get caught up in their easy-going enthusiasm.
The show’s fun-loving, high-energy, seemingly-chaotic feel is, of course, the result of much planning and carefully calibrated delivery by the production team and cast. The four multi-tasking performers are wonderful, with Vicky Binns managing to convey Beryl’s complexity with skilful economy. It’s nice to note that in his first professional stage appearance, that along with a long list of other frantic cameo roles, Matthew Heywood can already add his performance as Queen Elizabeth II to his CV!
Kimberley Sykes’ entertaining and elevating production is a tonic. At a time when it’s tempting to worry that the world is going to hell in a handcart, it’s a total pleasure to hitch a ride on the handle-bars of this pedal-powered feel-good tribute to an inspirational sportswoman and the community that kept her going.
Images by Jonathan Keenan