A TWO-WHEELED CHARIOT OF FIRE
I suppose there must be some lazy, vacillating, unfocused Yorkshirewomen, but I’ve not met one yet. And of that tribe of gritty, unselfpitying, fiercely down-to-earth females, few surpass the late Beryl Burton.
Beryl who? How dare we! It is a scandal that any of us need to ask. The final tableau in this intimate, larky, metatheatrical bio-play about the highest achieving of sportswomen sees the cast of four surrounding her fallen racing bike with innumerable trophies – best British all-rounder 25 years running, world champion more than once, holder still (despite technological advances) of unbroken records including a 12 hour 277 mile marathon in which she overtook the entire mens race …
On it goes. And if you want more tough, underdog unsung credibility, reflect that – women’s sport being a Cinderella and cycling in her day mostly a working class club sport – Beryl achieved most of it on shoestring and domestic sacrifice, supported by her faithful husband and soigneur Charlie. She had to cycle to competitions – Yorkshire to London, even – and achieved her early training by working as a labourer on a rhubarb farm (there is a fine educational digression abut the West Yorkshire rhubarb economy). One telling scene shows how – having missed the last train to the world championship at Leipzig – the couple daren’t have the hotel breakfast because their only money is Charlie’s last week’s wage. On being informed by the more appreciative Germans that there is nothing to pay because of her fame, Beryl and Charlie are too embarrassed to change their mind and have the breakfast after all. Very Alan Bennett, that. Less Bennettish is the fact that they’re only late because Beryl stopped off to defend her 100-mile title at home first.
This debut play by Maxine Peake for the West Yorkshire Playhouse toured last year and frankly, the more often it pops up again the better. Beryl’s story needs no embellishment – weak heart as a child, missed the 11-Plus through illness, emerged furiously determined to “make her mark” and ignore medical advice to avoid exertion. Here is ferocious ambition, nerves overcome, family stress, injury, triumph after triumph, more injury. Great story, but it does need a lightness of touch: and Rebecca Gatward’s production achieves that in pared down playful style. Samantha Power plays the adult Beryl, Rebecca Ryan her youthful self and then her daughter (who in one race at last beat her, which didn’t go down well). Lee Toomes is an amiable Charlie, and others; Dominic Gately all the rest – mother-in-law, club trainer, assorted waiters, rivals, everything. Four bikes on stands get vigorously pedalled against projected Yorkshire scenes and cheering crowds, manoeuvered and repaired: during the early part the actors slip out of character with good jokes (when Rebecca Ryan suddenly swaggers pelvically across the stage as a factory- hand the others puzzle “What’re you doing?” “I”m being a bloke!”. Artful, exiguous props cause jokes too, but wisely, as the play grips tighter, Gatward has them lay off that.
It’s hugely enjoyable, warm, credible, respectful for all the larking. But I hadn’t expected one private tearful moment: it came when, getting her MBE from the Queen (Gately again, in a tiara) Beryl turns and murmurs awestruck “She knew who I was, Charlie..”. A whole vista of working-class , secondary-modern, farm-labourer-housewife yearning pulsed in those words. This extraordinary athlete had to work punishingly, with furious dedication, to win that moment. In an age of instant celebrity it almost hurt.
box office 020 8174 0090 to 19 April