Review: Blue Stockings at York Theatre Royal

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 brave the stigma of wanting more than house and home when they arrive at Girton College to both hope and ridicule. ‘Blue Stockings’ has very clear implications about how the past bears on the present, and what that means for the future.


All image credits: Michael J Oakes

The script is delightfully funny, poking fun at all the huffing and puffing about skirts, or indeed ‘blue Stockings’ finding their way into academia with glee. There are other narrative elements at work of course, with heartbreak, angst and endearing young love all playing their part. Under the direction of Maggie Smales, the York Settlement Community Players bring Swale’s play to life with great zest. On Sara Burns’ sparse, multi-functional set (Sara Burns), the company manages to conjure up the period with performance alone.

And the cast are an impressively strong ensemble, with some slick multi-rolers who also offer musical interludes. Charlotte Wood, playing Tess Moffat, is rarely off stage and she carries the weight of her intense role in the production with ease, comfortably shifting between humour and drama. 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.PNGThere are also some 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. 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 remember that ‘Blue Stockings’ is not entirely a work of fiction.

Finn Ella, playing Lloyd, is a stand-out in this production for his ability to make me 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 switching to a detestable naysayer is a fantastic display of both dramatic and comic talent. 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.


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.

There’s little to gripe about with this production – 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. But this is a brilliant play featuring a very strong cast. A sharp social commentary delivered without preachiness, this is a production well worth seeing if you’re interested in exactly how men preposterously rationalised the oppression of women and how feisty women braved precarious situations for the benefit of future generations – with generous laughs interspersed 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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