Beryl

Maxine Peake

Oldham Coliseum Company

Oldham Coliseum

May 7-21, 2022; 2hrs (then Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, May 24-28; Dukes Lancaster, June 7-11)

Elizabeth Twells as Beryl Burton in Beryl at Oldham Coliseum. All pics: Chris Payne
Elizabeth Twells as Beryl Burton in Beryl at Oldham Coliseum. All pics: Chris Payne

It's got a very John Godberish style about it, Maxine Peake's enjoyable little bio-play. And by calling it "Iittle" I don't mean to diminish the value of Beryl as a stage work.

For Peake's first play (from 2012-14) is a simple feat of writing for performance – it's no accident that the writer is a major British actress, able to write for others what she knows would work for herself; story, character and business that is easy on the braincells and heavy on the heart – much like the ever-resourceful John Godber has over the past 30-odd years.

Perhaps on the page the script might come across as disjointed, flitting around multiple characters handled by four actors, in this case Elizabeth Twells mainly as heroine Beryl Burton, and James Lewis, Tori Burgess and Charlie Ryan as the other people in her life and sphere. But on stage it's a cute and no-nonsense biography of Beryl's sickly childhood-to-unknown superstar story, told by the four performers as Beryl's parents, cycling mates, employers, officials, doctors and so on. It contains one stand-out moment as Beryl is recognised by a couple of German fans as she and her husband try to find cheap lodgings after missing the train en-route to an international meeting. The recognition lights her up.

The play progresses swiftly, thanks partly to Chris Lawson's light-touch direction, with minimal props against a projected back wall of roads and other locations. It also, cheekily, falls through the fourth wall at times as the actors mention various aspects of being in the play (a device that doesn't outstay its welcome, another feature well-judged by Peake).

The play goes sketchily into possible reasons why Burton wanted to be as good as she was: struck down by rheumatic fever just before her 11-plus and written off as "excused sports" thereafter, she fought tooth and nail to rise to be a multiple Yorkshire, national, international and world cycling champion in several classes over several decades.

That she was driven and a bloody-minded Yorkshirewoman seems pretty clear, and these are good reasons why she drove herself to cycle hundreds of miles a week in training and picked rhubarb to build up her stamina and earn much-needed cash.

One thing anyone watching the play will take away is the terrible irony of this multiple world-champion's achievements, which today would have earned her millions and a job for life on the TV pundit circuit in retirement. Back then it left her in virtual obscurity and poverty, mostly because she was achieving so much just a couple of decades ahead of her time.

Peake supposedly wrote the play – a commission from the Yorkshire Festival to mark the coming to the county of the Tour de France – to champion a... well, champion, after reading about the unregarded woman many now believe was the greatest British sports figure (certainly Yorkshirewoman) we have ever seen.

Isn't it time someone turned her story into a movie? And we got out a few more posthumous acknowledgements?


Info and tickets here