I now know where Morley and Tingley are. There they are…marked out on the 1961 Ordnance Survey map of the West Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle pasted to the New Vic stage. This is Beryl Burton country. It was here her passion for cycling began. And from here she conquered the rest of the country – and parts of Europe – on two wheels.
This adorable bio-pic is very much a “let’s do the show right here” production; as four cyclists in shorts gather in a bike workshop to tell the tale of someone most of us have never heard of. Just to put us at ease, the actors confess they’d never heard of her either… till the auditions. Beryl Burton was one of the UK’s greatest ever sportswomen; but she racked up her records in the 60s and 70s when both cycling and women were still largely side-lined.
It’s such a cosy; a dramatised eulogy that resembles a happy, homely convergence of Pathe Newsreel, Ealing Comedy, ‘Ripping Yarns’ and ‘The Afternoon Play’; which is where it first appeared before Maxine Peake picked it up again to create the stage version.
Beryl was clearly a very determined woman. Having been taken seriously ill whilst sitting her 11 plus, she’s advised to avoid physical exertion for life. But that’s not going to stop our Beryl….and it’s the pluckiness of it all that provides the charm. “It’s all a case of mind over matter”, Beryl tells us. “I’ll make me mark.”
Lucy Tuck’s face is a picture. There’s a look of terrible glory and manic triumphalism on it whenever Beryl crosses the line….with thighs of fire, beads of grit dripping from her forehead and lasers of bloody-mindedness shining from her eyes. It’s an honest, warts and all, portrayal of a decidedly no nonsense Yorkshire housewife who expects to win everything and isn’t afraid to speak her mind; especially when she compares Britain’s meagre sporting resources to those enjoyed by cyclists in the German Democratic Republic…or when she feels her daughter Denise isn’t playing fair.
Beryl was still cycling whilst heavily pregnant. She just raised the handle bars to accommodate her bump. So, it’s no surprise the babe was born with cyclists’ calves. That role is one of many that falls to the pigtailed Hannah Edwards who spends the entire evening playing with the play to great hilarity … and making sure the audience knows she’s doing it.
She and the two guys get to portray everybody else. Robin Simpson matches Beryl mile for mile as her cycling-mad husband Charlie. We are told it is “love at first bike” – as Beryl produces her wedding veil from her saddlebag. Hugely versatile Rob Witcomb completes the quartet, picking up all the comedy cameos from Bernard Manning to Her Majesty the Queen.
Gemma Fairlie’s production faithfully echoes the spirit of the West Yorkshire Playhouse original … and then goes the extra mile by, for example, sending up Stoke’s departing MP Tristram Hunt. And it really is a V. Awful joke.
But by producing such a heart-warming, true-life, docu-drama, she is also following the tyre tracks of the New Vic’s founder Peter Cheeseman who bedded his theatre on exactly this kind of show; which makes this very special.
I was waiting all evening for at least one cyclist to make the most of the theatre’s velodrome properties…and when she does, it’s an audience- tingling moment.
‘Beryl’ is a jolly good piece of work and a most fitting tribute to a hard-driven woman. Some of her records still stand …. and this excellent show proves why.
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Photo : Andrew Billington