Tuesday, May 28

Beryl – Oldham Coliseum

For an astonishing sports career, Beryl Burton may not be quite the household name one might expect, but her achievements are the stuff of legend. At a time when women were expected to prioritise raising families and keeping house, Beryl’s unparalleled domination of the world of Cycling has created a legacy that helped push British cycling to heady heights of success and prestige.

Penned by acclaimed actress Maxine Peake, this joyful and creative show gives us a whistle-stop tour of key milestones in Beryl’s life, from her early introduction to cycling from future husband Charlie, through to battles with health issues leftover from a childhood illness that led doctors to repeatedly beg her to stop competing and juggling elite competition with motherhood when her daughter Denise is born.

Director Chris Lawson’s deft touches are delivered by four incredible multi-role actors, Tori Burgess, James Lewis, Charlie Ryan, and Elizabeth Twells, denoting character changes swiftly and effectively through the simple addition of, say, a jacket, or a new prop.

Thanks to the highly effective input of Movement Director, Jennifer Kay, we are taken through a enjoyable and physically demanding account, with the cast spending a huge amount of time furiously pedaling on bikes, cleverly rigged to turbo-trainers, to bring us along on everything from social club rides to tense world championships, with Beryl’s Yorkshire grit shining throughout.

They are a superb ensemble, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to comically lament how knackering it all is, whilst introducing us to many of the characters that played a part in shaping Beryl, with their words – both encouraging and derisory – ringing in her ears as she grinds towards her latest finish line.

We get the gamut of emotion, from no-nonsense Rhubarb farmer turned coach Nym’s hilarious soliloquys on his crop, to two splendid German hoteliers who treat Beryl with a reverence never experienced in her own country, through to Charlie’s switching from amiable and dedicated partner to defensive and forthright father, when Beryl reveals her jealousy of her daughter’s own cycling success in a rare, unsporting moment.

The iconic moment where, in 1967, Beryl sets a new women’s 12hour record– one that stood for 50years – and mischievously offers the 1st place male a Liquorice Allsort as she sails past him is one of pure delight for the audience.

The show’s success is underpinned by the excellent set, lighting, projection and sound design from Irene Jade, Will Evans, Grant Archer and Eliyana Evans respectively. Evans’ touch of lighting the tyre rims that adorn the stage is a particular visual treat, changing colour to reflect the shift in mood or location. All meld together to create the perfect, authentic backdrop for the onstage action. 

There are a few tiny bumps in the road – slightly miscued effects, a few fluffed lines, to name a couple – but these don’t detract from the heartfelt warmth that radiates from Peake’s script in what is ultimately a love letter, not just to Beryl’s story, but to the community spirit and camaraderie embedding in grassroots cycling, thanks in no small part, to a remarkable woman, for who it really was ‘love at first bike’.

Beryl is on at the Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 21st May. For tickets visit https://www.coliseum.org.uk/spektrix/spektrix-events/beryl/

Reviewer: Lou Steggals

Reviewed: 10th May 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★