It’s just coming up to that time of year when the new university students enrol and start their three year journey that will culminate in them putting on a cap and gown, walking across some form of stage, shaking hands with someone wearing an even more ornate cap and gown then receiving a rolled up piece of parchment while their proud friends and families look on and “social mediarise” the event like there is no tomorrow. Graduation Day ceremonies are beautiful to watch as students of every creed, colour, gender, pick up their awards. Of course, it hasn’t always been like this, and this is the central theme of Jessica Swale’s play Blue Stockings which the National Youth Theatre is currently presenting at The Yard Theatre.
It is 1897 and leading academic Dr Maudsley (Dajay Brown) explains to the audience the profound and immutable – at least to him and his ilk – reasons why ladies should not be encouraged to take up education. Meanwhile, in Girton College, Cambridge and flying in the face of male opposition, four young ladies are beginning their academic career. The four – Celia (Millie Boardman), Tess (Mischa Jones), Caroline (Nadia Hirsi) and Maeve (Simran Hunjun) – under the watchful eye of Governess Miss Welsh (Amy Parker) and radical feminist tutor Miss Blake (Laura Trosser), are all hoping to be scientists when the graduate. Ah wait, there is a problem there as ladies are not permitted to graduate from Cambridge – or any other university – so their learning is purely to pass a test. Not only is there no chance of obtaining a degree at the end of their course, but the ladies have to put up with the constant rude remarks of the male undergraduates such as Edwards (James Walsh), Holmes (Samuel Creasey) and the truly odious Lloyd (Maxwell Hayes) who find women in college to be a very amusing thing indeed. There seems to be no way to overcome the prejudice and even Tess’s best friend from home, Will (Quinton Arigi) seems to turn against her as the year goes on. Will the ladies ever get the recognition for their work or should they just go back home and fulfill man’s destiny for them by becoming respectable wives and mothers?
Blue Stockings is a really fascinating and imaginative story to want to tell. Whilst there is a feminist vibe to the piece, the reality is that the four ladies at Girton go through the same struggles that most minority groups encounter as they seek to achieve the same rights as the majority. Whether it is 1897 or 2017, people defending the status quo will use the most bizarre, contrived and vicious arguments to get their point across. In 1897, it was thought that educating women would lead to the collapse of civilisation. Running backwards and forwards through time, it is possible to hear the same argument has been used to fight against the repeal of slavery, equal marriage and giving the vote to 16-year-olds. Good to see that the ‘establishment’ has moved on so well.
Unfortunately, I found Jessica Swale’s narrative a bit uneven in its treatment of the history here. For example, it was thought that women did not have the capacity to concentrate on too many things at once and sure enough, when Tess falls in love with an undergraduate by the name of Ralph (Oscar Porter-Brentford), the first thing she does is let her studies go and then has trouble remembering things during an examination. There were a couple of other examples where I felt the narrative was slightly out of synch with the story being told.
However, turning aside from that, I was generally impressed with the quality of acting from the large ensemble cast. The lead ladies worked well together and came across as a well-bonded group who were happy to look out for each other almost like family members. I really liked Amy Parker and her portrayal of Miss Welch – particularly at the end of the first act was really good.
Alice Knight’s direction was good, with the actors not on stage sitting quietly in the wings Kate Lane’s very minimal design worked on the whole, but I must admit to getting distracted by the overhead projectors, which also felt way out of period for the play.
Overall, I did enjoy Blue Stockings. The subject was fascinating and the acting pretty good. For me, there were some issues with the staging and the writing itself but overall, I found it to be an enjoyable evening learning something new and seeing some great new talent that I’m sure to hear more of in the future.
By Terry Eastham
Following its world premiere at the Globe Theatre in 2013, NYT present the first play by Olivier Award winning playwright Jessica Swale (Nell Gwynn) for which she was nominated for the Evening Standards’ Most Promising Playwright Award. Blue Stockings follows the battle at Girton College, Cambridge in 1896 to earn women the right to graduate. Directed by Alice Knight, recipient of the 2014 Bryan Forbes Director Bursary Fund.
14 – 19 August 2017
EAST END SEASON AT THE YARD
The Yard Theatre, E9 5EN
8th – 26th August 2017
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Press Performance: 9 August
8th – 12th August 2017
Press Performance: 16 August
15th – 19th August 2017
Press Performance: 23 August
22nd – 26th August