Updated: May 28, 2021
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Bolton Library Theatre
19 September - 19 October 2019: 2hr 25min
Maxine Peake’s Beryl, telling the life story of Britain’s greatest-ever woman cyclist, is a good night out and fulfils its promise of being fast-paced, full of energy, sometimes breathless and finally triumphant (yes, let’s keep those cycling metaphors coming round, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel).
Beryl Burton was a Yorkshire lass and the play was originally commissioned to mark the 2014 Tour de France's excursion to the Leeds area. It’s full of references to God’s own county, toughness and Yorkshire grit, though in Kimberley Sykes’ production for Bolton (with Maxine Peake in the audience on press night) there are a few mentions of Lancashire, too, among the many gag-lines.
Only four actors play all the roles, which include Beryl’s mum and dad, her teacher, a couple of nurses, her husband, her daughter Denise, her rivals and various others who make up the story from childhood to her early death. They break out of role altogether occasionally, as if still making up their minds how this little slice of history should be portrayed – which all adds to the fun.
In the confines of Bolton’s Library Theatre (more of a lecture theatre), since the Octagon company is homeless while its home is rebuilt, the production does wonders with limited space and the need to carry on and off every single piece of property (including quite a number of bikes). There’s even an old-fashioned carousel slide projector on a seat at the front, casting obliquely-angled pictures on the wall to show us the heroine’s real self and life, simultaneously authenticating it all and setting a sense of period.
Beryl’s story begins with a childhood illness and consequent failure of her 11-plus exam, showing it as the mainspring for her determination to succeed and make her mark in later life. Over-simple, perhaps, but it makes an immediate narrative link and we follow through as she takes up cycling, meets Charlie and marries him and goes on to win one championship after another while still a Yorkshire housewife.
That’s where the interval comes, and after it, as success follows success with all dates and places specified, it sags a little until the one real moment of high drama when, narrowly beaten by daughter Denise in a crucial race, Beryl refuses to shake hands with her on the podium. That made the papers at the time, and the play puts it all down to Beryl’s sense of fair play and the unwritten rules of competitive cycling, but you wonder…
There’s a fairly heavy dose of indignation about the tough deal done to women in sport generally in the 1950s, 1960s and even beyond in this country, and top-class cycling was never a source of great financial reward (and only lately of any kind of fame), in that period. That was probably as true of men as of women: Reg Harris, too, came from a working class background to be a household name, but there were no TV shows for sportspeople to move on to in his day either, and "amateur" meant you funded yourself.
This cast – Vicky Binns, Matthew Heywood, Chris Jack and Flora Spencer-Longhurst – give the play their all, physically as much as in every other way. They deserve medals all round.