Review: Maxine Peake’s Beryl a fitting tribute to a great woman

Maxine Peake stars as Beryl Burton in the West Yorkshire Playhouse play.
Maxine Peake stars as Beryl Burton in the West Yorkshire Playhouse play.

Maxine Peake’s portrayal of Beryl Burton is an incredibly fitting and moving tribute to a woman who can now justifiably claim to be Morley’s greatest daughter.

The play brilliantly shows Beryl’s many faces - the loving wife, the caring mother, the proud Morley girl and the humble but brilliant world-beating cyclist.

As well as recording her endearing and happy marriage to Charlie, her rise to cycling glory and the momentous day when she broke the 12 hour record, there is an intimate spotlight shone on her lows. There is the agony of being told in her childhood by medics that she would be unable to exercise intensely; two road accidents that put her in hospital and a brief but bitter fallout with her daughter Denise after she beats her in a race.

And yet despite the humility with which Beryl was so synonymous, it is heartbreaking to watch the righteous frustration she feels towards her relative anonymity and lack of appreciation in Britain. It’s a wrench that becomes all the greater when a German police officer recognises her as she competes in Leipzig.

Notably, all the costume and set changes are performed by the versatile four-strong cast on stage. All of them are faultlessly fluent and often coupled with casual narration from the actors moving the story along or explaining unusual cycling terminology.

The imaginative use of props is never more entertaining than a scene depicting early-marriage activity on Beryl and Charlie’s rainy honeymoon in Filey: both actors wear expressions of delight as they each cycle on stage with growing intensity until two umbrellas sprout simultaenously and lightning strikes.

But it is the final act, telling the story of the hours before Beryl’s sudden death of heart failure in 1996 that is the play’s real tearjerking moment - it’s a scene so beautifully written, constructed and performed that its hard to imagine any other way of concluding the story.

Lead role actress Penny Layden’s brilliant performance is matched by those of the supporting cast - John Elkington, Chelsea Halfpenny and Dominic Gately. Rebecca Gatward’s joint efforts with Peake to adapt what started as a radio play should also be applauded.