Preview: Beryl

Maxine Peake’s first stage play reveals the fascinating but private personality behind the record-breaking world champion cyclist from Leeds

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Where to start with Yorkshirewoman Beryl Burton? She was one of the all-time cycling greats – twice world road race champion, multiple track cycling world champion and, domestically, winner of the top female time trial rider award for an amazing 25 consecutive years. But her story runs deeper than a list of accolades.

Beryl is the debut stage play by Maxine Peake, a work that looks at the triumphs and foibles of this fascinating woman. Adapted from Peake’s 2012 radio drama Beryl: A Love Story On Two Wheels and first performed in 2014, it lets us into the lives of Leeds-born Burton, her compassionate and encouraging cyclist husband Charlie and their race rival daughter Denise, while examining motivation, doubt and the consequences of defying expectation.

“Much of this play is about relationships, marriage and the practicalities of putting all your time, effort and money into pursuing something,” explains actor Vicky Binns, who will soon take on the title role. “There is conflict, and we examine that, but what you get to see is how Beryl could never have been ‘just a housewife’, how she could never have let cycling go. She was just built to race bikes.”

So while Beryl is ostensibly a sporting tale, it can appeal to those with little knowledge of the sport. “Sporting stories tend to have this universal appeal,” says Binns, recognisable for her roles in Corronation Street and Emmerdale. “We can see her determination and that makes us all wonder how far we’d personally pursue something no matter how glamorous that thing may be. Overcoming adversity is something everyone can relate to.”

Throughout her career Burton was the archetypal exponent of letting achievements do the talking. A private person – astonishingly she retained amateur status throughout her cycling career, which spanned the 1950s to the 1980s, earning a living on a Yorkshire rhubarb farm – she often found it difficult to put into words precisely what motivated her.

“She was the kind of person who just got out there and did it with the grit and determination to win without the need to show off,” says Binns. “When researching for the role I always got the feeling Beryl retained that modesty as there was always that thought at the back of her mind that it could all suddenly end.”

And suddenly end it did. With her racing, although not riding days behind her she suffered a heart attack when out delivering invitations for her 59th birthday party and was found, alongside her bike, dead at the roadside. Her daughter Denise, also a successful bike racer, has subsequently claimed Burton’s unrelenting drive had simply worn her body out.

“She was a remarkable woman,” says Binns, who hadn’t encountered Burton’s legend prior to hearing Peake’s radio play. “My favourite quote about her is from a European writer who said: ‘If Beryl Burton had been French then Joan of Arc would have taken second place’. For her, stopping was just not an option but throughout she remained humble and willing to fail, even though she very rarely did.”

Beryl is at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, 19 Sept-19 Oct (octagonbolton.co.uk)

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