Today our top cyclists win universal public acclaim, but long before Bradley Wiggins, Sarah Storey and Victoria Pendleton won Gold, an amateur female cyclist from Yorkshire was winning world records. Beryl Burton has long been admired in the cycling community but this multiple world champion, who came to cycling only by accident, has never received the universal acclaim she deserves.
Maxine Peake’s play Beryl sets out to rectify that oversight and bring Burton’s world-beating achievements to a wider audience. Following an acclaimed run at Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse during the Tour de France last year, the show has now been revived and is about to head off on a UK Tour. Actress Samantha Power, who plays Burton in the piece, hopped off her bike and spoke to Glen Pearce, a self-confessed Burton fan.
Beryl Burton is possibly our greatest unsung sporting hero, were you aware of her before you started work on the project?
I’m embarrassed to say that the first time I’d heard of Beryl was when they did the play last year at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I didn’t get to see it but I heard about it and that was the first time I’d heard about her, which is embarrassing really.
That’s understandable as until recently she was relatively unknown outside of the cycling community.
I think it’s brilliant that the play is going out on tour and going round the country telling her story as it’s such a brilliant and remarkable story.
Cycling has grown immensely in popularity since Beryl’s time. How do you think she’d react to the superstar status of the likes of Bradley Wiggins?
It was her passion and her sport and I think she’d be pleased how it is celebrated and how there’s more knowledge about it. She was so good, at the height of her game and maybe because she was a woman and because she was an amateur and because the sport wasn’t what it is today, she’s been slightly forgotten. If she’d been around today she would have absolutely been a Bradley Wiggins or Victoria Pendleton, or even better, so I think it can only be a good thing the sport and her achievements are being celebrated.
What was your research process for taking on the rôle?
I knew the play was on last year but wasn’t lucky enough to see it so the first time I really knew her story in depth was when I was sent the script to see if I wanted to audition for it. We’re very fortunate that, in 2015 we have Google and the internet, so we’ve got more information at our fingertips. A lot of information is in the play itself, but I read her autobiography as well. Because the director [Rebecca Gatward] has done it before, she was obviously more than well equipped to answer any questions. In the rehearsal process, you dissect the script and talk at length about the character; Beryl, her life, her relationships. We were fortunate enough to meet the real life Charlie and the real life Denise [Burton’s husband and daughter], to ask them questions about Beryl as well.
I was going to pick up on that. Obviously her family are still very much around and you are playing someone who was alive until relatively recently. How much of a challenge is that as an actress and how free can you be with your interpretation?
It’s important to get it right; she was a real life human being so you absolutely want to nail it. The beauty of this play is that it’s an ensemble of four and we play several different characters so we dip in and out but as the director was saying, it is Beryl’s story and you want people to watch you knowing it’s Beryl’s story. There is an image of Beryl that comes onto the screen right at the end and they purposely didn’t put that on until the very end because they didn’t want to compare Sam Power the actress to the real Beryl Burton.
The rewarding thing is that when Beryl’s family and friends that she cycled with came to see the show they were like ‘you absolutely embodied who she was and captured everything about her’ and I was really chuffed with that as that’s praise indeed, more so than anything. They told me I was cycling right, my lines on the bike right, so I thought, brilliant, the research has paid off!
I was going to ask that, you spend large sections of the play peddling furiously. Have you ever worked out how far you actually cycle during a performance?
It works out about 10k a show and I do a 5k warm up. As of today, let me get this right, I’ve cycled 660km, so I’m hoping by the end of the tour at the end of November I will maybe have doubled that.
Had you done any sort of serious cycling prior to this?
I don’t even have a bike! The first time I got on a bike in rehearsal was the first time since, you know I can’t even remember the last time I got on a bike, apart from when I was a child or a spin class.
So has it put you off? Will you want to carry on cycling after the show or do you never want to see a bike again?[laughs] I might stick to my Zumba if I’m really honest! I like the thought of getting on my bike, but no, it’s enjoyable but not enough for me to go and take it on as a hobby.
So Beryl’s not inspired you to take to the road and become an amateur racer?
Maybe after the tour and after I’ve had a break then maybe! I may suddenly go, come on, I’ve missed it. Where me and my partner live, the Tour de France actually came through, so there’s load of lovely places to cycle around there so maybe – in the future!
The play really started life on radio with its author, Maxine Peake, playing the rôle, Is it daunting to step into her footsteps?
Yes and no. I listened to the radio play and I know Max a bit, but when you’ve got your part it’s your own interpretation and you bring your own kind of thing to it. She’s a brilliant actress and she didn’t do the stage version last year, she only did the radio, so I’m just grateful that I’ve gotten a chance to play this brilliant, strong northern, determined woman.
Let’s talk about Beryl the woman. The opening of the play states she was ‘wife, mother, Yorkshirewoman, cyclist and legend’. What do you think was most important to her?
You know its tricky isn’t it? She clearly loved Charlie very much and she clearly loved her daughter, but I think cycling was her passion. She was fortunate that Charlie was so supportive. Charlie was a cyclist originally and he gave it up to help her, look after all the bikes and drive her places, but I think that cycling was definitely, definitely what her life was all about.
The ending of the play, focusing on Beryl’s sudden death, but also her enormous list of achievements and records, packs a real emotional punch, is that hard to portray eight times a week?
You definitely tired on a Saturday night after an eight-show week, especially after two shows on one a day, but you do that and its almost uplifting. You go ‘ wow, look what she achieved’. It almost encourages you to go out there and do something and be better at your craft. It just goes out on a high with this one incredible lady who was remarkable. It’s hard to watch all the footage on the screen and I’m sure it’s so hard for the family to watch. It’s a very sensitive issue for the family, but hopefully we’ve achieved something good at the end of the play.
You’re touring the show to quite a number of venues, including a number of non-traditional theatre venues. Do you think it’s important to take Beryl back to the community?
I do, I really do. It’s a brilliant play and Maxine has written a fantastic piece. It’s fun, it’s touching, it’s moving and, more importantly, we get to tell Beryl’s story.
We get to take it out into the communities that might not get the opportunity to get to bigger towns and cities to come and see the play. We’ve a rural version where the script and performances are the same but for some of the smaller venues we’ve just had to adapt it slightly. It’s great that there’s more than one story going around the country and more and more people will have heard of her by the end of it.
Beryl tours until 28 November.
For more information www.wyp.org.uk/latest_news/beryl-on-tour/
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