What better day to open a play based on the life of World Champion cyclist Beryl Burton than International Women's Day? Her incredible story, which has been brought to life by actress, and now playwright, Maxine Peake, started its run at the Rose Theatre in Kingston on Tuesday, and is currently on tour. Ride Velo went to the press launch to see this inspirational and funny play - which is really a must for all cycling history lovers.
To be honest, we didn't really know much about Beryl Burton before we saw the play being promoted on Twitter. But that's kind of the point... although Beryl Burton was a World and National Champion cyclist, she never really received the recognition she deserved and remained an amateur throughout her career, which spanned several decades.
Playwright Maxine Peake hadn't heard of her either, until her boyfriend gave her a copy of Beryl's autobiography; "I just want more and more people to know about Beryl because I just think she's so inspiring... her story does have this universal appeal. That was a real surprise to me because I'd thought I was probably writing it for an audience of cyclists!"
Peake, who is better known as an actress having worked on Channel 4's Shameless and Victoria Wood's dinnerladies, originally wrote the play for radio. "I'd never done any writing, just bits for myself, but I was fascinated by this story. I started talking to Justine Potter, who eventually went on to produce and direct Beryl - A Love Story on Two Wheels for Radio 4, and she said 'why don't you write it?'".
The play was first broadcast on the radio in 2012 and then was performed on stage for the first time in 2014 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which tied in nicely with the Tour de France Grand Départ being held in the county. Peake had to rewrite the script for the stage but has done a fantastic job and the end result is much more than just a narrative retelling of the Yorkshirewoman's life story. It's subtle, funny and the characters fully-fleshed out. Despite the cast of four taking numerous roles (of both genders) throughout the production, Beryl and her family were totally authentic as they pedalled away on their turbo-trainers.
The force of Beryl's character really comes across loud and clear, but it is her relationship with husband Charlie that is the backbone of the drama. "The more I talked to Charlie," said Peake, "the more I realised what a love story this was, the way he was always 100% behind her at a time when it would more usually have been the other way around... I wanted to write something about ordinary people who did just carry on with normal everyday lives while they also had this extraordinary other life." Charlie was the ultimate 'soigneur'.
The astonishing thing about Beryl Burton MBE is that she developed rheumatic fever as a child and was repeatedly told by doctors during the course of her life that she must take it easy and not exert herself as she had a dodgy heart. But Beryl "I Will Make My Mark" Burton was not going to lie down and live the life her doctors wanted her to live.
In addition to her cycling success, she worked as a farm labourer on a rhubarb farm and challenged herself physically even when pregnant with daughter Denise. Motherhood didn't stop her either, and baby Denise accompanied her cycle-loving parents in a specially designed sidecar. Sadly, the doctors were ultimately proved right - Beryl Burton died of a heart attack while out on her bike delivering invitations to her 59th birthday party.
The show uses authentic video footage projected as a huge landscape backdrop as the actors cycle on the stage. These techniques really bring the story to life and give it humour, for instance exposing the grim reality of the couple's caravanning honeymoon on the North Yorkshire coast in April! Beryl's 'make do and mend' mentality continues into the production with a spade being used in place of a hoover complete with appropriate human sound effects and lots of cross-dressing.
Beryl, directed by Rebecca Gatward, is currently on tour having visited Birmingham, Carlisle and is now in Kingston, Surrey until 19th March. Gatwood said: "Beryl Burton is starting to become known and celebrated by audiences across the country in a way she could only dream of when she was alive. She is one of our unsung sporting heroes who by rights should be a household name. Perhaps one day she will be. We are delighted to share her story again with audiences at the Rose and we hope you find her as awe-inspiring, engaging and magnificent as we have."
We will profile Beryl Burton next week - but in the meantime try and catch the show - you won't be disappointed. Great theatre, fantastic acting, directing and a wonderful script. Book your tickets here.