Beryl top

Samantha Power as Beryl, Britain's cycling phenomenon

Beryl

Birmingham Rep Studio

****

MAXINE Peake’s dynamic presence within theatre is certainly something to aspire to.

She is invincible on stage and screen, having most recently played the acclaimed part of Hamlet at the Royal exchange in Manchester and in her debut play, Beryl, she has shown that her talent knows no bounds.

Beryl Burton’s story is truly unique. Better known as the best British cycling all-rounder for twenty five years running from 1959, she travelled the world to compete in countless competitions, cycling from one side of the country to another because of unaffordable train fares and smashed the women’s twelve hour time record in 1967 with a distance that bettered the men’s mark for two years.

The cast of four were fantastic story tellers. As an audience, we were constantly immersed in the northern essence that was seamlessly captured by their playful and fun deliverance.

The play is an insight to not only who Beryl was, but the legacy she left behind. In the brilliantly stylised and technically clever production, actors Matthew Ganley, Lee Toomes, Samantha Power and Rebecca Ryan work in equal measure to show the key moments in Burton’s life.

The script is woven with Northern humour and interesting facts relating to women’s cycling, such as women not being included in Olympic cycling events until 1984, a remarkable figure considering the titles Beryl achieved before then. Peake’s remarkable and punchy writing opens the audience’s eyes to shocking moments of the barriers faced by women within sports, but it also sets to celebrate Beryl’s determination and cberyl and daughterourageous personality all the more.

The play is a memoir to Beryl’s life. Throughout the course of the play, we witness her life from childhood until her sudden death in 1996. Rebecca Gatward’s direction makes the passage of time look as natural as possible. With slick transitions where actors would change from one character to the next at the blink of an eye, the story is smoothly told with a fascinating discovery of the efforts of the remarkable lady.

Samantha Power as Beryl with Rebecca Ryan as her daughter Denise.

Samantha Power plays Beryl. Through Power’s performance, we gain an insightful and almost biographical understanding of who Burton was as a sportswoman. The scenes have a quirky narration, with the rest of the cast fitting into the stories as ‘smaller’ characters, like the man who gives Beryl a ride home in his van, the over the top police officer, commentators and news reporters at championships and even the Queen. Each additional character gave the show its funny edge and playful undertone. Power, however, never lost sight of the essence of Beryl and particularly shone in the second half of the play.

The sheer strength and absolute determination was reflected by Power’s utter commitment to the iconic role. Power had the sole responsibility of making the audience see the ‘other’ side to the sportswoman and captured the touching moments of her family life with a beautiful tenderness. The scene where Beryl competes and loses to her daughter Denise was particularly moving.  Power unearthed the soul of a mother, conflicted with the obsession of winning.

All actors show great talent and versatility. Lee Toomes predominately plays Charlie, Beryl’s husband, as well as other characters. Providing the emotional support and almost all of the coaching Beryl had. Toomes brings a soft edge to the character of Charlie, taking on the role of the almost forgotten, doting husband. In his performance, he shows constant moral support and infinite belief and Toomes is perfect in the role that carries an abundance of love for his family.

Rebecca Ryan and Matthew Ganley are also fantastic within their parts. Ryan plays daughter Denise with incredible flair. Like her mother, Denise Burton also made her mark in cycling as we learn in the production. Ryan’s versatility for characterisation also shines through when she takes on the role of other characters while Ganley never failed to achieve roaring laughs from the audience, sometimes even without saying a word as he injected the production with wonderful humour and cheekiness.

The set is used as their canvas to illuminate the sacrifices Beryl and her family made to achieve her dreams. Bikes used as props show the significance of the toil and hardship they went through just to compete. The only mode of transport was to use the bike and cycle to the destination, as the family could not afford train faires. Even if it meant cycling from Yorkshire to London.

The play pays homage to a fantastic and underrepresented beacon of sport. The stylised and modern script bridges the gap between the way sports was seen in the mid-twentieth century and the celebration of heroes as we know sports to be today. Peake’s wonderful account of a fantastic woman is brought to life. We see a person as well as a sportswoman in a celebration of sports and the way Beryl made her mark. To 28-11-15

Elizabeth Halpin

24-11-15 

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