IN BRIEF Celebration of inspiring female sporting legend played with affection amongst the facts
When someone is no longer alive or in the limelight, their memory fades quickly. So it’s particularly good to welcome this revival of a 2014 play by actor/ writer Maxine Peake. Originally commissioned to coincide with the Tour de France, it is a heartfelt and particularly English celebration of Leeds-born cyclist Beryl Burton – a true sporting legend of the 1950s/60s/70s who did it all on her own, with nothing but “guts and determination”, setting records for decades through sheer “Yorkshire grit”- and the occasional liquorice allsort.
Part of the reason that so many know so little about the genuinely inspiring story of Beryl Burton is that women’s sport has been for so long been undervalued, with no official support for developing athletes, meaning that whilst other countries revered their sportsfolk, the UK simply ignored them, meaning that Beryl and her family were continually impoverished. There is justifiable anger here at the UK’s shameful desertion of national talent, especially women, and all the more amazing that they achieved so much. Although at last the balance is shifting to recognise current female sporting heroes, perhaps almost more importantly, we must now sing the praises of those left unsung from the past.
To the play. Already competing against herself as a child, things seem set against Beryl from the start when she develops a weak heart through a spell of childhood rheumatic fever. But Beryl was not someone to let others tell her what she could do; we see her “guts and determination” give an iron structure to her lifetime of intense drive. “I will make my mark” says Beryl when pressed to pinpoint her motivation- and she certainly did.
As Beryl grows and dedicates herself to her natural talent, she is well-supported by her husband and eventually her daughter, who she trains – eventually becoming a winner herself, although not without tensions along the way. For Beryl, sportsmanship is paramount and tensions with her daughter’s achievements sparks a series of unfortunate incidents which increase Beryl’s health issues.
The cast of four play a wide variety of roles, but it is Jessica Duffield as the adult Beryl who scores the most consistently with her down-to-earth, likeable portrayal. Tom Lorcan, so good recently in THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING, plays Beryl’s supportive husband Charlie with sensitivity. As a non-cyclist myself I appreciated the several set ups and explanations of her copious races and runs but did feel that there was a dramatic price paid, which left little time for learning more about the woman herself. And now, with the London run of the play, perhaps the explanation of the Rhubarb Triangle was necessary, but it did slow things down a little more.
Designed as an affectionate celebration of a sporting legend, the play has much to tell us about factual events, while the occasional more reflective moments are particularly valuable in giving us an insight into the mind of the woman herself. Occasionally I found the larkiness punctuating the play distracting. But the central issue is Beryl herself – an underappreciated sporting legend. Now thanks to this welcome celebration we can now remember more clearly a woman who broke cycling records for over 25 years.
BERYL plays at Arcola Theatre, London until November 16th. Details and tickets here