Blue Stockings

Tue 28th January – Sat 1st February 2014

reviews

Sian Avery

at 17:10 on 29th Jan 2014

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In choosing to perform Jessica Swale’s Girton-based play of last year to a contemporary Cambridge audience, the production team behind Blue Stockings guaranteed an enthusiastic and welcoming audience, as evidenced by their success in selling out every performance. Though there were some minor opening night slip-ups, director Ellen Robertson’s production does indeed deliver on presenting the audience with a woman’s dilemma of balancing private life with academic success; a matter which remains relevant today to many women looking to manage both a family and a successful career.

Blue Stockings opens by outlining the severe divisions between the old male and new female populations of Cambridge in a manner that allows the audience an insight into the intensely masculine world which the bewildered girls find themselves in, as raucous boys in boater hats gallivant around the stage and well-spoken professors belittle the prospect of female intellectualism. Throughout the play, the sombre depiction of women’s struggle for academic respect is interrupted by welcome intervals of humour, often playing on the male undergraduates’ awkwardness around the girls (as we are jestingly told, “some women find verbal incompetence quite attractive”), with scenes of illicit romantic behaviour around the university being met favourably by the audience, particularly when the wonderfully enacted girls’ chaperone was involved. The audience was encouraged to laugh at the ludicrous manner with which many of the male characters spoke of women, informing the audience that women’s education is “at the expense of her vital organs” and stating they would be better off in the laundry room than the lecture hall.

While the romantic sub-plot surrounding Tess Moffat was at points oddly distracting from the political and social driving force of the play, Sarah Livingstone’s performance of the impoverished Maeve having to sacrifice her education to fulfil her womanly social requirements was resonant, as was Olivia Emden’s portrayal of the passionate suffragist. Gabriel Cagen stood out as the eccentric but sympathetic professor facing ostracism for his support of the girls. Set designer Rob Eager and the production team triumphed with their representation of Tess’ room, with a set that was clearly recognisable as Girton’s hallways. Less successful was the scene change in which the magic words, “you’re very lucky having an orchard out here” cued the miraculous descent of trees from above, oddly superimposing them on the hallway, much to the audience’s amusement. Though the scene changes were numerous and bordering on lengthy, they were well-orchestrated and staging choices were made to great effect at several key points in the play, notably during Isabelle Kettle’s well-delivered speech. There remained some minor problems including muddled lines, soundtrack problems and the odd stuck door on stage; however, these were largely well recovered and might be attributed to opening night nerves.

Rating Blue Stockings proves something of a difficulty; while it certainly merits more than three stars in its enjoyable ability to present the balance between our predecessors’ sombre struggle with moments of well-conducted hilarity, it is not necessarily going to blow away the sold-out and highly expectant audience without first ironing out its imperfections. It proves successful in conveying the sense of conflict between being an educated woman or a socially acceptable mother, daughter or wife in a manner that remains poignant to the audience and reminds us of the not-so-distant struggle for the female right to graduate. Blue Stockings is certainly worth watching, if you are lucky enough to have already purchased a ticket, but is perhaps over-anticipated by the highly enthusiastic Cambridge audience.

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