Beryl, New Vic Theatre - review and pictures

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Chances are you've never heard of Beryl Burton. "I'd never heard of her either, until I got this job. Well, until I Googled her before the audition," says one of the cast as the play opens.

When the play ends we've learned a great deal about the motivation and achievements of the working class cyclist from the West Riding who blazed a trail through the record books of the nineteen fifties, sixties and seventies. And we've been well entertained by a cast of four who joke and sweat in equal measure through a muscular but playful telling of Beryl's story.

Beryl was written by actress and writer Maxine Peake to coincide with the start of the 2014 Tour de France in Leeds. It's an inspiring story of a tenacious youngster overcoming serious illness – "strenuous exertion is out of the question for the rest of your life" – who falls for a cycling enthusiast and discovers that cycling is the way she can prove the doctors wrong and leave her mark.

Beryl's story is sharpened in this New Vic revival by recent events. The prospect of having new grammar schools gives an uncomfortable twist to Beryl's determination to avoid the trap of "disappointment and disillusionment" she faces on not passing an entrance exam "to separate the wheat from the chaff".

And accusations of "lies, bullying and harassment in the world of top-level cycling", with concerns about possible doping, freshen our appreciation of Beryl's world. Her Morley cycling club's rule is "no one gets left behind". A close rival insists on lending her a better bike for a key race. And Beryl's mid-race energizer consists of rice pudding in a baby's bottle.

Lucy Tuck gives us a thoroughly convincing mature Beryl who is housewife, mother, rhubarb-farm labourer and competitive cyclist. "Smile when you lose, laugh-out-loud when you win", she says. But when she loses we see only grim determination to train harder and win next time. "I don't know about talent," she says.

"It's just hard work. Anybody could do it."

Robin Simpson is rock solid as Charlie, the reliable husband and 'soigneur' who keeps Beryl's wheels spinning. Hannah Edwards and Rob Witcomb excel in multiple smaller roles that oil dramatic episodes with quick wit, strong physical humour, and some cheerful improvising.

Director Gemma Fairlie uses all the space available to her at the New Vic to keep fresh the action of cycling and racing. She balances tension and movement superbly. It was thrilling to experience the warm spontaneous applause that broke from the audience the moment Beryl completed a twelve-hour time-trial, passing a sweet to the fastest male cyclist as she sailed past him to set a record which still stands fifty years later.

By John Hargreaves

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