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Blue Stockings

by on 26 July 2018

Gowned Academics

Blue Stockings

by Jessica Swale

Youth Action Theatre at the Michael Frayn Theatre, Kingston until 27th July

Review by John O’Brien

Books or looks? That is the dilemma facing a pioneering group of young women in Cambridge in 1896. Considering the popularity of Love Island has much changed? The title refers to a dismissive epithet for an educated woman. Like Jane Eyre these women risked social oblivion. Neither marriage material nor real graduates, they occupied a precarious no-woman’s land betwixt and between. Jessica Swale’s accomplished debut play, acted with brio and verve by The Youth Action Theatre, brings vividly to life the struggle of these remarkable heroines. It’s a story that deserves to be known and this play is a fitting homage to that struggle.

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The set is minimal but apt. Three bookcases give just the right feel of a Cambridge College – Girton, the first college in the university to admit women – and each scene is signposted via PowerPoint projection. The direction is pacey, short scenes move briskly to hold our attention, and keeps us wanting to know more.

We follow four young undergraduates over the course of one academic year as they try to study and be taken seriously. Jennie Hilliard is superb as Tess Moffat. She gets the balance between determined scholar and vulnerable young woman spot on. She deftly navigates the often absurd double binds the bluestockings find themselves in. For example she wants to ride a bicycle to demonstrate Newton’s Laws of Motion but feels that girls don’t sling their leg over to get on the saddle. She agrees to do so but only after asking her lecturer Mr Banks (Josh Clark) to look away. This dilemma – how to be independent within a patriarchal world – forms the heart of the dramatic drive of the play.

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The Mistress of Girton College, Elizabeth Welsh (Jojo Leppink) convinces as she steers the college and the girls through treacherous waters. They must study hard to match the men but they must not let the college down. They must at all times be respectable. And they must not jeopardise the reputation of Girton by any Suffragette nonsense. To enforce this code she employs the fearsome chaperone Miss Bott (brilliantly played by Emily Dixon) to accompany Tess everywhere. When Will Bennett (Ben Buckley) attempts to embrace Tess Miss Bott archly reminds him that he must keep a distance of 30 inches at all times. Will Bennett and Mr Banks are classic New Men. They too face moral dilemmas: to support the Girton Girls even if it means social pariah status?

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Blue Stockings is a complex play because it shows the almost impossible double binds the College and the girls where trying to work around. Nowhere was this more poignantly dramatised than in the case of Maeve Sullivan (Meaghan Baxter), the poor scholarship girl from the East End. We watch entranced as she flourishes to become the best student in the year and then, in a devastating peripeteia, her brother Billy (Joseph Evans) comes demanding that she return home to look after her sisters as her mother has died. We see how poverty trumps gender. Miss Welsh agrees with Billy, she has to go home, child care comes before education. Such, such are the hard realities the girls are up against.

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But the most implacable opposition comes from the men. In a scene of devastating explosive force, the leader of the Trinity men, Lloyd (Gwithian Evans) mocks the girls as being a joke. He contrast the 800 year history of male power and scholarship and invokes Newton, Marlowe, Milton, Pepys and Byron to ridicule the pretensions of the Bluestockings. It’s a monologue of stunningly grotesque vituperative force. As a coda the shop keeper who has witnessed this shocking abuse demands that he leave her shop. Lloyd reminds her that his father owns all the shop leases. She immediately backs down and agrees to sell him… a pair of blue stockings. It’s a brilliant metaphor.

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Blue Stockings is a triumph. It pays homage to a remarkable generation of women who showed courage and resilience in the face of the most daunting hurdles. We owe a debt of gratitude to those Bluestockings. What better way to show our appreciation than by going along to see this truly inspirational show and at the same time encourage our future talent in Youth Action Theatre.

Photography by Jonathan Constant

From → Drama, YAT

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