Maxine Peake’s Beryl tells true story of the greatest woman on two wheels
Beryl Burton is quite possibly the most successful woman you’ve never heard of. She dominated cycling in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, becoming world pursuit champion, national pursuit champion, road racing world champion, national road racing champion, British record holder, world record holder, an MBE and an OBE. What’s even more remarkable is that Beryl had a heart condition and early in her life doctors had advised that she could never take part in strenuous activities.
When Maxine Peake was given Beryl’s autobiography as a gift she questioned why no one had ever written a play about her, and so she wrote it herself. Her debut stage play, Beryl began as a radio play, Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels, in which Maxine also starred. It was adapted for the stage in 2014, premiering at Leeds Playhouse coinciding with the start of the Tour de France in Yorkshire.
Director Chris Lawson said: “Beryl Burton showed the world what you can do if you really dedicate yourself to achieving your goals. In her lifetime she didn’t get the recognition she deserved, but now thanks to Maxine Peake’s wonderful writing, she serves as an inspiration to a whole new generation of women and cyclists. I’m really proud to be sharing the story of this strong Yorkshire-woman across the North West”.
Theatre by the Lake are excited to be showcasing this story, especially as one of their own Customer Experience Volunteers, Sally Pratt, raced with Beryl on several occasions in the 1970s and 80s. Sally belonged to a couple of cycling clubs around the Cheshire and Manchester area during her racing days, and even beat Beryl once on Beryl’s home turf in the Leeds area in a 25-mile time trial. However, she admits that Beryl was “getting on a bit by then”. Sally is also proud of once ‘splitting the Burtons’; she came second in another 25-mile time trial race where Beryl took first place and Beryl’s daughter, Denise, who also became a successful international cyclist, took third position.
Sally recounts that Beryl always maintained her Yorkshire humour; once, as a guest of honour at a British Best All Rounders hotel dinner, the quality of the food was so poor that when Beryl got up to make a speech, she began with “Who wants to come with me to get some fish and chips?” And when over-taking the leading male rider in a 12-hour event, who was himself on the way to setting a new men’s record, Beryl cheekily offered him a liquorice allsort from a bag she happened to be carrying.
Sally said, “Beryl was a real inspiration, and we girls were often just vying to come second place next to her. She often expressed frustration in the lack of proper investment in women’s cycling. She’d be impressed today by how far women’s cycling has developed, and to see professional female cyclists reaching their full potential. Of course, as was her way, she’d be continuing to push herself to the limit.”
Oldham Coliseum Theatre’s production of Beryl tours to Theatre by the Lake from 24 – 28 May.