How exciting it is to see a contemporary play presented in the city by an enterprising, energetic and erudite new(ish) company! Blue Stockings was first played at the Globe in 2013 presented by its writer, the dynamic Artistic Director, Jessica Swale, (currently showing her new play ‘Nell Gwyn’). It tells how the women of Girton College, Cambridge in the late 1890s won their right to receive degrees against all gender-limiting odds.
The writing is slick, witty and direct. Perhaps at times, Swale gets too close to stereotypes, but the balance is at least offered - there is a ‘goodie’ male and a ‘baddie’ female. Cate Nunn directs a large and very fine cast, mostly playing more than one role. Her clearly-differentiated characters are in a world we shouldn’t recognise, (though we do - I wonder why!) where male domination is the hegemony.
The struggle to demonstrate academic equality is managed by the survival-conscious expedient tutors and forced forward revolutionaries. Dr Maudsley’s terrifying counter-thesis (brilliantly expounded by Nick Quartley) that eugenic science proves males have intellectual superiority whilst female hormones predispose women to hysteria and other neuroses is a lecture too far for Tess Moffat. Tess, played by Tracey Rimell, has the temerity to question the prevailing wisdom. Thus begins her roller coaster university career; ejected from his auditorium and warned by her tutor, Mrs Welsh not to rock a boat, she has struggled for many years to steer towards academic equality with men. Helen Taylor, also artistic director of this wonderful company, plays this role with subtle ambiguity just as her namesake must have done. In a later scene, she is forced to decide again between her ideology and professional survival. She returns one of her brightest students to the socially-accepted bondage of enforced motherhood. It was the moment in the play I found myself in tears, recognising Sophia Levine’s ( as Maeve Sullivan) convincing pain and the political dilemma of her tutor.
There is much to laugh at, too, for this is a play that satiates all theatrical tastes; drama, comedy, love-story etc. The excellent performances are too many to review here. Suffice it to say that the play has no acting weaknesses. The several scenes created some problems on the first night with the discontinuity resulting from numerous blackouts, but assuredly these are ‘picky’ unworthy criticisms of a play that deserves a full audience to every performance. I could not recommend it more wholeheartedly. It entertains, it informs, it shocks. Many congratulations to ElevenOne Theatre for choosing it, Cate Nunn for directing it and the company performing it so well.