Review: Beryl, by Maxine Peake, New Wolsey Theatre, until Saturday November 7

Samantha Power as Beryl Burton and Rebecca Ryan as Denise in
Beryl
by Maxine Peake
directed by Re

Samantha Power as Beryl Burton and Rebecca Ryan as Denise in Beryl by Maxine Peake directed by Rebecca Gatward - Credit: Archant

Beryl is a brilliantly realised, fast-moving, inventive and touching story of the greatest British sportswoman you’ve never heard of. Beryl Burton was a competitive cyclist – a cyclist in the days before training regimes and high profile sponsorship deals.

Samantha Power as the title character in
Beryl
by Maxine Peake
directed by Rebecca Gatward

Samantha Power as the title character in Beryl by Maxine Peake directed by Rebecca Gatward - Credit: Keith Pattison

Always strapped for cash, Beryl got to the top because she was an astonishingly determined individual and her achievements, catalogued during the course of this warmly human play, are staggering.

The fact that she is not better known is bewildering considering that she was runner up to Henry Cooper for the BBC’s Sports Person of the Year Award and her 12 hour time trial record, established in 1967, still stands today.

Beryl is played out against the backdrop of a cycle workshop which through audience imagination and acting silliness turns into houses, hospitals, school classrooms and international race tracks.

It’s a play which is delivered in a bravura style by four incredibly fit actors who spend half the play peddling on bicycles as they re-enact the highs and lows of Beryl’s life and career.

Samantha Power as the title character in
Beryl
by Maxine Peake
directed by Rebecca Gatward

Samantha Power as the title character in Beryl by Maxine Peake directed by Rebecca Gatward - Credit: Keith Pattison


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Written by actress Maxine Peake, the play is delivered in a lively, almost conversational manner, as the actors frequently come out of character to question the meaning of cycling terms or to ridicule one another as they swap hats and dip in and out of a variety of different characters.

The actors make it clear they are presenting a play and quickly establish a warm dialogue with the audience. Director Rebecca Gatward keeps the action moving swiftly and uses tables, boxes, chairs, bags and all manner of cycling bric-brac to fashion props while the play hurtles towards its dénouement.

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But, for all its warm-hearted fun, Beryl is also a very touching story of a person who battled against herself and childhood illness to prove that she could make her mark on the world.

It’s also the story of Beryl’s husband and daughter Charlie and Denise who supported and encouraged her and had to cope with her obstinate single-mindedness.

The four actors Samantha Power, Lee Toomes, Rebecca Ryan and Matthew Ganley bring huge amounts of affection and energy to their multiple roles and by the end of the evening you are left with a feeling that you have just witnessed a labour of love.

A writer, director and a group of actors have wanted to share the story of an amazing sportswoman whose records still stand.

A serious contender for play of the year.

Andrew Clarke

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