"Criterion’s ‘Beryl’ is a triumphant telling of a triumphant but also poignant tale."
In line with our EDI policy, we undertake an EDI impact assessment of all our artistic programming. This play has no central diversity message but does cover the story of a woman's achievement within a male-dominated arena. It can be cast completely neutrally of race/ethnicity. The central story means that the characters should be ideally be playing ages around 20s to 50s. The play is written for two male presenting and two female presenting actors.
Four vintage ‘racing bikes’ with drop handlebars andback projections set the scene for the biography of Beryl Burton. If you ask “Beryl who?” that answers why Maxine Peake wrote this wonderful biography of Britain’s greatest woman cyclist. Beryl, who was chiselled out of Yorkshire millstone grit, overcame a serious childhood illness to win countless cycling trophies and break records, one of which stood for 50 years despite the massive technological improvements in equipment available to her successors.
Four actors played all the parts in Beryl’s life story. Cathryn Bowler, maintaining a good northern accent, was word perfect throughout, portraying Beryl’s fierce determination and occasional periods of self doubt. She realistically depicted the exhilaration of winning, the frustration of losing, although she didn’t have to do that too often, and Beryl’s joy from just being on a bike.
Peter Gillam was her supportive husband Charlie, happy to do all he could to assist Beryl by helping as her trainer,roadie and mechanic. He also played some minor parts convincingly and amusingly. John Elves took several minor roles ranging from the doctor to an East German policeman and had great comic timing. Rowan McDonnell played Beryl’s daughter, Denise, who became a cycling champion in her own right, and played several of Beryl’s competitors.
Peter, John and Rowan were all excellent, taking turns at narrating the chronology of Beryl’s life, her achievements, crashes and briefly her fall out with her daughter. This narration moved the play along apace, reflecting the speed of Beryl’s cycling.
She was a working class heroine whose day job was on a rhubarb farm and had to make her own way to the race events with no support from the cycling establishment. There were numerous comic moments, with northern humour interweaved in the plot, and the almost full house was thoroughly entertained from start to finish. This play will have gone some way, in the best possible manner, to giving Beryl Burton some of the belated recognition she deserves.
“Beryl” is a winning play and is currently being winningly performed at the Criterion. Its funny, informative and fast as it whizzes the audience through fifty years of Beryl’s adventures on two wheels.
Although many of us have never heard of her, Beryl Burton was a winning British athlete who clocked up an extraordinary collection of national and international cycling titles and accolades after getting on her bike in the middle part of last century. An incredible Yorkshire woman of sheer grit and determination, Beryl relied on her own mettle, her lovely husband and lashings of rice pudding to keep her on the road.
There’s no doubting the toughness required to keep ‘squeezing the steels’ year after year and the dry Yorkshire wit helps to make seemingly impossible feats of endurance seem as straightforward as a circuit of the town park.
This four-hander play by Maxine Peake (yes that Maxine Peake) and directed by Helen Withers, celebrates Yorkshire spirit, culture and humour with every line whether it is speaking as brilliant Beryl (fantastic Cathryn Bowler), super sidekick husband Charlie Burton (Peter Gillam), sporty daughter Denise Burton (Rowan McDonnell) or Nim and others (Jon Elves).
Cathryn, Peter, Rowan and Jon do a sterling job with the rapidly changing characters and accents they adopt and are brilliantly cast to bring a sweaty story to the stage. The versatility and fitness of the cast is never in doubt and they deliver the ‘ride of their lives’. It might have been nice to see tweedy pedal pushers in the early stages of Beryl’s journey but the cast inhabit the ubiquitous lycra cycling shorts with confidence and a multitude of thoughtful wardrobe propscomplete each character. I loved the various caps, jumpers, plimsols and pearls. The projections of landscapes and newsclips were dramatic, timely and evocative.
All in all, Criterion’s ‘Beryl’ is a triumphant telling of a triumphant but also poignant tale. Anyone who’s ever sat on a bike or watched competitive sport will appreciate the achievements of Beryl Burton and I think it’s fabulous that the Criterion has chosen to share her story. Audience members seeking an additional flash of authenticity are welcome to arrive at the theatre under their own steam – powered by pedals and rice pudding.
Anne Cee, ElementaryWhatson