Writer: Jessica Swale
Director: Elle While
Blue Stockings, by Olivier Award-winning British playwright Jessica Swale, is brought to life for the North West this month, as a Storyhouse Original production directed by Elle While. The play, popularised through its use on the Drama GCSE syllabus, tells the story of Tess, Celia, Carolyn and Maeve who are fighting for their right to earn a degree for their studies in Girton College, Cambridge, in 1896.
The play’s title refers to the derogatory term used for female intellectuals in this period and sets the tone for audience reaction throughout aghast and appalled by the inequality and injustice faced by these intelligent and defiant young women. The core cast of the four main characters (Esther Jonson, Neve Kelman, Louise Wilson and Rebecca Pegasiou) all deliver excellent performances and have the audience on side from the outset, with a lively and humorous scene involving bloomers and a bicycle!
As well as dealing with the theme of female rights, the play also tackles other themes powerfully including young love, heartbreak and class divides. Pegasiou provides a particularly memorable performance as Maeve as her social status differs so significantly to her fellow students and she is forced into making a difficult decision due to family circumstances in a particularly memorable and emotional scene towards the end of the first act. Polly Lister is also wonderful as Mrs Welsh, the well-intentioned and often misunderstood head of Girton college, painfully torn between maintaining a positive reputation and support for her college and fighting for what she believes is right. Many of the standout moments of this production involve the emotional speeches delivered by Benedict, trying to balance societal expectations with the growing pressure to progress.
Other notable performances include Tim Frances and Macaulay Cooper, who play renowned psychiatrist/infuriating misogynist Dr Maudsley and arrogant, entitled undergraduate student Lloyd respectively. Both performances are masterfully delivered, encapsulating the attitudes that reformers were up against and evoking the desired outraged reactions around the audience; gasps, wide-eyes and tuts galore. Natasha Bain also delivers a very solid performance as Miss Blake, moral science teacher and strong female rights activist, who incorporates the interlinked themes of suffrage into the equation.
The set design and staging by Adam Wiltshire is simple but effective, with the audience regularly immersed as they are transformed into fellow students within the lecture. Scenes blend quickly and smoothly, with the pace of the play keeping interested on the main. There are one or two spells in the middle where the pace drops a little and some of the supporting male cast members provide less authentic performances. However, the few shortcomings are far outweighed by the positives.
This production is very well directed and performed, undoubtedly facilitated by the excellent writing of Swale. As powerfully alluded to in the theatre’s promotional video for this performance, the true power of this play is that it is dealing with a fight that is ongoing. Yes, women now have the right to vote and to earn a degree but the dangerous chauvinistic mindsets from the 1800s are still evident today, even from the mouths of some of the most powerful men across our 21st-century world. This production is a must-see for everyone: male, female, young, old. The fight can only be truly won if everyone is on board!
Runs until 15 March 2020