Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings centers around the women of Girton College fighting for their right to graduate in 1896, perhaps a difficult concept for an audience of twenty first century students to relate to. However, director Ella Carter immediately immerses us in the nineteenth century as the lights come on to reveal a haze of smoke, signaling the departure of a whistling steam train.
Undeterred by the relatively small cast, Ell Johnson’s costume and set design creates a bustling atmosphere filled with lines of Late-Victorian travellers. Despite the picturesque scene, the audience is quickly reminded of the reality of a glass ceiling, personified by the era’s leading psychiatrist Dr. Maudsley (Joe Perrin). Maudsley dictates to the audience the danger of an intellectual woman, while behind him Mrs. Welsh (Lottie Fowler) welcomes Girton’s next class of female students.
Josie Davies’ staging effectively mimics the history, with Maudsley’s assertion of the mainstream belief occurring in the foreground, while Welsh provides the undercurrent of feminist sentiment in the background. This dualist narration regarding the capabilities of women sets up the conflict which drives much of the play’s drama.
Initially, the girls are consumed by the excitement of their entry into Cambridge, not yet fully comprehending the injustice of the system. Sophie Botham’s nuanced portrayal of Tess is exemplary of this naivety, as her academic pursuits are pushed aside by the attentions of the well-educated Ralph (Niall Unger). Light-heartedness prevails through the bolshie and well-timed humour of Carolyn (Annabel Marlow), who aspires to attain both a medical license and a husband. Amidst scenes of the girls’ giddiness the disdainful voice of their male counterparts reveals the tension their very presence stirs.
So far the boys have judged the girls’ education to be a frivolous transgression from their domestic nature. The revelation of Tess’ academic abilities triggers a sense of unease, particularly for the egotistical Lloyd (Tom Gibson). This comes to a head when he accosts Carolyn as she shops for campaign banners, aggressively silencing her protests that she has a right to graduate. Despite Mrs. Welsh’s ability to secure a University vote on the matter, the line ‘No man will ever want you!’ echoes as our empathy for the women’s state of limbo is fully realised. The play’s humorous tone shifts into one of unpredictability as the audience is left unsettled by the intensity of the confrontation and the upending of Carolyn’s self-assurance.
The boundary between Girton and the outside world finally dissolves when a mob invades the college as they await the University’s verdict. Sound effects of smashing glass shatter stage divisions, as the actors come together in the foreground and the dramatic climax occurs in a stand-off between the male students and Mrs. Welsh. Fowler delivers a standout performance as a woman who has dedicated her life to the acquisition of basic educational rights. The moment resonated with the audience who watched enamoured by the culmination of the previous two hours of mounting tension.
Regardless of some minor technical errors, the cast and crew delivered a timely production that was beautifully drawn together in the final scene. In a moment reminiscent of the introduction, the crowd is immersed in the fog of a departing train; however, Maudsley’s misogynistic prediction of the Girton ladies’ failure is replaced by their uplifting legacies. Mrs Welsh’s striking announcement, that Cambridge only granted its female students the right to graduate fifty years later, brought the audience to their feet. Blue Stockings is a poignant celebration of the sacrifices pioneering women endured in their efforts to achieve academic equality.
Jemima Mason & Anna Killen
Image credit: stage.leeds.ac.uk