Beryl – Oldham Coliseum

Cyclist Beryl Burton is undoubtedly one of the greatest British sporting athletes of all time. Over her lengthy career, she smashed records across multiple cycling disciplines. She was the Best British all-rounder for 25 successive years, she won over a hundred cycling titles, received an MBE, and her record breaking time of completing the 12 hour trials stood unbroken for more than 40 years.

With this incredible list of achievements, one has to ask the question, “Why has nobody heard of Beryl Burton?”.

Cyclist Beryl Burton winning a race in Beryl, Maxine Peake's play that is on at Oldham Coliseum
Beryl Burton (Elizabeth Twells). Picture Credit – Chris Payne.

Written by the ever brilliant Maxine Peake, Beryl shines a spotlight on this forgotten sporting legend, recognising her achievements by telling Beryl Burton’s remarkable life-story.

As a child, Beryl contracted St Vitus’s Dance, an illness that weakens the heart. After spending nine months in hospital, she was warned by health professionals to avoid physical exertion in the future. This didn’t stop Beryl from pushing herself though, joining the Morley Road Cycling Club.

It is through the cycling club that Burton started to compete in competitions. She also met Charlie there, who would later become her husband. Even when she became pregnant, Beryl refused to stop cycling, instead demanding that the handlebars of her bicycle be raised to accommodate her bump.

Despite her success, Beryl and Charlie continued to struggle to make ends meet. They received no funding from the government, and both worked full-time jobs to fund their cycling competitions. Living on the breadline made Beryl more determined to win, to prove all the naysayers and doctors wrong. To make her mark.

Four actors ride four stationary bicycles. Beryl at Oldham Coliseum
L-R Charlie Ryan, Tori Burgess, Elizabeth Twells, James Lewis. The Morley Road Cycle Club. Picture Credit – Chris Payne.

Filled with warm, northern humour, Beryl is performed by four actors, who all display versatility by playing multiple characters. Charlie Ryan and Tori Burgess show comedic talent with their humorous characters, from Germans with outrageous accents to eccentric police officers and workplace jocks. Ryan’s whimsical turn as The Queen rightfully received an applause on its own.

James Lewis mainly plays Beryl’s husband, Charlie. A bedrock for his wife’s career, Lewis’ performance as Charlie is heart-warming, showing his devotion and dedication to Beryl, as well as the sacrifices he makes, putting family first. Lewis also amusingly plays a young boy, who fancies Beryl’s daughter, Denise.

As to be expected, Elizabeth Twells’ remarkable performance drives the play. Twells brilliantly renders Beryl’s strength, her tenacity, and determination, as Beryl displays an inspirational drive to succeed at all costs, even against her own daughter. Twells also portrays the more sentimental side of the awe-inspiring competitor, showing that she’s still only human, as she struggles with doubt and panic attacks before races. It’s an excellent performance which brings this formidable, historic sportswoman to life.

Most extraordinary though is the fact that all four actors do intensive cycling throughout the play. They really deserve the highest praise for being able to perform a play at the same time as doing full-on workouts. It must be physically exhausting, but it never shows.

The Queen (Charlie Ryan) gives Beryl Burton and her family an OBE in Beryl. A play written by Maxine Peake at Oldham Coliseum.
The Queen (Charlie Ryan) gives Beryl an OBE. Picture Credit – Chris Payne.

With the actors riding static bicycles, the dramatic emphasis is placed on Grant Archer‘s video projections, displayed on a huge video screen at the back of the stage. The stage itself is strikingly framed with illuminated bicycle wheels, which are donated by Streetbikes, a Huddersfield-based charity who provide cycling sessions and give away recycled bikes to those who aren’t able to afford one.

Together with Eliyana Evans‘ sound design, the technical production of Beryl is exemplary. The audience is reliant on it to know where Beryl is cycling during her competitive career. Archer’s video imagery and Evans’ sounds transport us from Belgium to Buckingham Palace, the Yorkshire Dales and Germany.

Before watching BerylI had never heard of Beryl Burton, something that is used as a running joke throughout the play. On the evening I watched it, there was an audible, shocked intake of breath from the audience when one of the characters actually knows who she is.

Thanks to Maxine Peake’s delightfully charming play, I am now enlightened and inspired by what a remarkable woman Beryl Burton was. Not only did she have profound success as a cyclist, but Beryl also showed resilience and determination not to let her health condition ruin her career.

Beryl Burton certainly made her mark!

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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