Beryl

 

 

Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Beryl

Highbury Theatre Centre

*****

Beryl Burton was a phenomenon; the greatest woman cyclist of her or indeed any generation. She dominated the sport like no one before or since. She was simply, the best and in any other country would have been a national hero.

Here in Britain she is not even Beryl Who? She is just Who? and it took Maxine Peake’s play, commissioned by the Yorkshire Festival as part of the 2014 Tour de France which started in Burton’s home city of Leeds, to bring some belated recognition.

Now even more people will know of this cycling legend’s story after this splendid production well acted, well directed and well told in the best Highbury production for some time.

It is witty, funny, sad and, above all, pays affectionate homage to one of the greatest sportswomen we have ever had.

Burton, born in 1937, won the women’s world road race championship in 1961 and 1967, while on the track she won world championship medals virtually every year for three decades. She was world champion in 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1966, silver-medallist three times in 1961, 1964 and 1968 and took bronze in 1967, 1970, 1971 and 1973.

Nationally it was a case of who would come second to Beryl. She won the best all-rounder title every year for a quarter of a century, from 1959 to 1983. She won 72 individual time trial titles, her last in 1986 at 25 and 50 miles when she was 49! She also won 12 road race and 12 pursuit titles.

As for records . . . her 10, 25 and 50 mile records stood for 20 years, she was the first woman to break one hour for 25 miles incidentally, her 30 mile record stood for 10 years and her 100 mile record stood for 28 years, Most remarkable was her 12 hour record set in 1967, 277.25 miles, the furthest by anyone, man or woman, only being beaten by a man two years later. It was50 years on, 2017 before Alice Lethbridge on a state of the art, ultra-light, aerobike, wearing a skin suit and aerodynamic helmet, finally broke her record.

As for the Olympics? Women’s cycling did not enter the Olympics until Los Angeles in 1984, when Beryl was 47 – not that age was a barrier, two years earlier Beryl set a 10-mile record for a tandem, riding with daughter Denise, like her mother a GB international.

beryl

Beryl Burton in full flight

Yet it should never have happened. As a child Beryl had rheumatic fever which meant nine months in hospital and then months in a convalescent home. It left her with a weakened heart, arrythmia and strict orders from doctors to avoid strenuous activity for the rest of her life.

Ironically her heart gave out on her not setting records or racing but cycling gently, for her, around Leeds in 1996, delivering invitations to her 59th birthday party.

The play involves a cast of 40, all played by four actors on a set dominated by four bikes on turbo trainers . . . and at the end of the run the four, particularly Kimberley Marlow and Sharon Clayton, will be super-fit or frazzled.

Marlow plays the young Beryl and then her daughter Denise as well as every other woman Beryl races against, while Clayton plays first Beryl’s mum and then the older Beryl.

David Weller, when he is not a nun, or a schoolboy somewhat disappointed that heads can’t explode at the stress of 11-plus exams, plays Charlie, the ever present in Beryl’s life. Her husband, mechanic, supporter and cheerleader. It was Charlie who introduced Beryl to cycling when they both worked at Burton’s, the tailors in Leeds.

And, with more parts than a decent jigsaw, there is Philip Astle who provides some lovely comic touches as schoolboy, vicar, nun, German train guard . . . and train . . . German policeman, Nim, the rhubarb farmer Beryl worked for, the Queen and half the population of Yorkshire.

We follow Beryl through her childhood, her early cycling days and on through competitions and internationals. She was the greatest woman cyclist of her age yet the financial rewards were non-existent and as for fame, she was still largely unknown and ignored in Britain.

That was most telling when stranded in Berlin on their way to Leipzig for the World Championships, with nowhere to stay, they called in a police station where the gruff desk sergeant was ecstatic when he discovered it was the world famous – except in Britain of course – Beryl Burton. A few phone calls later and they were in a hotel, free of charge, compliments of the minister for sport.

It is beautifully written and told, funny, full of heart and charm. Director Ian Appleby keeps the plethora of characters well defined helped by excellent timing by the quartet while Malcolm Robertshaw’s setting is elegantly simple with minimal props – loved the hospital bedside table and flowers making its solo entrance by the way – with a video screen at the rear providing a background to the scenes.

Tony Reynolds added some lively sound, from banjos for racing to bits of vintage pop while lighting by Andy Wilkes and Marion Chittenden helped to highlight scenes on an otherwise bare stage.

The 1950s, 60s, racing bikes, incidentally, were loaned by Peter Howe of Wainwright Vintage Cycles.

Only the real cycling aficionados have ever heard of Beryl, but she deserves a wider audience so this is your chance to find out more. It is a story which is inspirational, emotional and at times sad. It is such girl’s own stuff that if you wrote it in a novel no one would take it seriously, but this is a real story, a real woman, mother, housewife and legend – and it is a cracking night’s entertainment. To 09-06-18

Roger Clarke

29-05-18

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