“I will make my mark”, vows determined British cyclist Beryl Burton (Vicky Binns), desperate to prove her doctors and teachers wrong when circumstances suggest she won’t amount to much.
Beryl, Maxine Peake’s 2014 play originally commissioned for the start of the Tour de France in Leeds that year, tells the story of how northern, working-class Burton came to dominate female cycle racing in the 1950s through to the 1970s.
A sense of triumph in the face of adversity drives Kimberley Sykes’ production forward, with the cast of four depicting Burton’s story with vigour and reverence.
Some scenes are played purely for laughs – such as when Burton gives birth on the saddle of her bike – while others quietly emphasise the unwavering devotion of Charlie Burton (Chris Jack) to his wife.
Binns is at her best when making impassioned speeches: her mesmerising eyes glisten with emotion as she conveys Burton’s pride at all she achieves in spite of early health difficulties and 11+ exam failure.
Elsewhere, Matthew Heywood’s comedy talent shines through in a range of supporting roles, the highlight being an officious West Yorkshire policeman. It seems a shame, though, that Flora Spencer-Longhurst is often relegated to the role of petulant child as young Beryl and daughter Denise.
The production speeds along, even during narration sections in danger of dragging. Sykes’ direction makes dynamic use of the intimate auditorium and the sound design (by Andy Graham) adds to the heightened atmosphere with realistic sound effects, apt pop tunes and bursts of Burton’s beloved opera music.