Blue Stockings: A Lively, Biting Look at Incredible Social History

Preview at York Theatre Royal, 28th February (with thanks to TheatreBloggers).

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Set within the judgemental setting of uppity Cambridge in 1896, this brilliant play from Jessica Swale takes issue with the now infamous, outrageous arguments against women seeking education. Four spirited young women brace the stigma of wanting more than house and home when they arrive at Girton College to both hope and ridicule. The script is twee, it’s defiant, and it’s delightfully funny – poking fun at all the huffing and puffing about skirts, or indeed ‘blue Stockings’ finding their way into academia with glee – and a little outrage, too. There are other factors at play of course, with heartbreak, angst, endearing young love and the rude awakening of reality outside of their little learning bubble lurking in the background. ‘Blue Stockings’ takes a look at an important collection of themes that we can all recognise, and there are very clear implications about how the past bears on the present, and what that means for the future.

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All image credits: Michael J Oakes

Under the direction of Maggie Smales, the York Settlement Community Players bring Swale’s play to life with great zest. On a very basic, multi-functional set (Sara Burns), the company manages to conjure up the period with performance alone to a great extent- and they do so with great authenticity and conviction. The cast are an impressively strong ensemble, with some slick multi-rolers and glimmers of talents lying on the back burner in the shape of short musical interludes amidst scene changes. The play follows the four young women but heavily features their dismissive male counterparts, often as ripe light relief when the necessary monotony of ‘NO’ begins to take hold. Charlotte Wood, playing Tess Moffat, is rarely off stage and she carries the weight of her intense role in the production with ease; very comfortably shifting between humour and drama to present her increasingly tortured character’s situation with gravity. Amelia Twiddle, playing Carolyn Addison, presents a very likeable, self-assured novice with an eye for infantile notions of scandal while Kosi Carter presents the opposite in Celia Willbond; a straight-laced, desperately earnest young woman with a wise head on her shoulders and sweet hidden desires. Maeve Sullivan is the timid, quietly perceptive member of the group and Beth Stevens has a fine scene in the first act to give Sullivan’s quiet strength an outlet.

IMG_4189.PNGFinn Ella, playing Lloyd, is a stand – out in this production for his ability to make me (and presumably the rest of the audience) want to give him a kick in the shin and a stern lecture; his ability to be such an endearing scamp in earlier scenes before showcasing an altogether more detestable version of his earlier self is a fantastic display of both dramatic and comic talent in equal measure. Another lovable scamp is Edwards, played by Matthew Dangerfield, whose comic timing and bashful acceptance of his role as butt of most jokes is a highlight of many of the lads’ scenes. Minnie, played by Rachel Price is also a strong source of comedy, with her knowing looks and sense of fun. David Phillips and Thomas Barry, playing Holmes and Ralph Mayhew respectively, instigate some lively exchanges in Swale’s lighter scenes and as a gaggle of immature young men with a deep desire to remain firmly at the top of the hierarchy, the male cast are aptly cast opposite a gaggle of slightly more mature-through-necessity young women who wish to challenge that hierarchy.

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Mike Hickman is likewise of note for his irrepressible portrayal of the good-hearted Mr Banks – a man of principle and tradition, but also a man supporting change and the betterment of the female sex, to the detriment of his own opportunities. Will Bennett (Matthew Pattison) plays the classic lovelorn onlooker and succeeds in making Bennett one of the most endearing characters in the play; moments depicting the gradual evolution of his values, both public and private, are cleverly intertwined with scenes of deep prejudice or endless examples of the restrictions enforced upon the lives of women.

Swale’s play also explores some of the many wider tensions surrounding the issue of educating women and the possibility of allowing them positive recognition. She includes divisions within the divisions of gender; with men turning on men and women likewise as the foundations of man-made social norms are threatened. There are scenes of sharp tension in the ranks when the female staff of Girton – Elizabeth Welsh (Beryl Nairn) and Miss Blake (Sophie Buckley) – find themselves divided on ideas of familial duty and discussing the outrageous notion of associating the women with the Suffragettes – scenes which are just as perceptively written as Swale’s comic moments. It has to be said that there’s little to gripe about with this production – there’s some unnecessary, distracting business with stools during a walking scene which jarred with the overall quality of the piece, but that’s of little note. The only real qualm is the running time; there are a number of scenes which could readily be cut without tears to make the production kinder on the fidget scale – this great production would only be all the better for it.

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This is a brilliant play featuring a very strong cast; it’s a story which should resonate with modern audiences, as the stigma of wanting what is considered non-conformist or above one’s station are very much still considerable factors in a vast array of social tensions. The segments on ‘wandering wombs’ and lectures on the scientific, biological dangers of women studying are presented by the intensely self-assured Dr Maudsley (Paul Toy) with utmost gravity and are therefore a hoot to listen to; yet also sobering at times when we realise that ‘Blue Stockings’ is not entirely a work of fiction in its themes and historical content. It’s an accusatory social commentary without being preachy and it benefits greatly from the energy and the comedy in Swale’s script. As it stands, I thoroughly enjoyed it; it’s a production well worth seeing if you’re interested in exactly how men preposterously rationalised the oppression of women, and how feisty women braved their way through precarious situations for the benefit of future generations – with generous laughs at history’s expense.

‘Blue Stockings’ is playing at York Theatre Royal until the 11th March. You can get your tickets here.

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