The QT

Monday 17 June 2024
17/06/2024

Review: Blue Stockings at People’s Theatre

David Whetstone on a timely reminder of a battle of the sexes
The young ladies being tutored by Miss Blake (Sara Jo Harrison). Credit: Paul Hood

In the week of International Women’s Day (it’s Friday, March 8) comes a salutary – and, I have to say, enjoyable – reminder of the oceans of gloopy nonsense women have had to wade through over the years.

Enjoyable because it comes in the form of a sparkling People’s Theatre production of Jessica Swale’s first play (premiered in 2012) focusing on the efforts of young women in the late Victorian era to be awarded university degrees.

It seems any braying male half-wit with shiny shoes and a well-connected daddy could blunder through academia and emerge with the certificate that, as well as denoting intellectual superiority, would open doors to wealth and social standing.

Women, though… well, a woman, even though she might have within her grey matter a potential cure for all ills or the answer to the meaning of life, was expected to buckle down to marriage and motherhood, thereby easing the aforementioned male of the species through a world tailored for him.

The setting is Girton College, Cambridge, in 1896, still a newbie among the colleges and the first in the city to offer women the semblance of a university education – although they couldn’t formally graduate with a degree like the men.

Ashton Matthews, left, with Lauren Aspery, Ginny Leigh and Lauren Allison. Credit: Paul Hood

We meet four new students – ‘bluestockings’ as brainy young women were rather sneeringly called – at the start of their first term.

There’s curious Tess (Ginny Leigh) who stares at stars but in an inquiring, astronomical way. Fiercely determined to learn, she shows early on that she can ride a bicycle (pity the props people couldn’t source a period one but it’s a small point) and is apt to speak her mind.

Celia (Ashton Matthews) is willowy and determined; Carolyn (Lauren Allison) is worldly and fearless; Maeve (Lauren Aspery) is of a different social class, brilliantly clever but quiet and put on the spot when an angry brother arrives to drag her back to domesticity.

Engaging performances from all of them – and indeed from all members of a large cast which includes an opposing scrum of male undergrads who can’t seem to work out whether they’re gallants or louts.

Whatever! They know university is their rightful stomping ground and that a grateful world awaits their anointed presence in it.

The bluestocking girls of Girton College. Credit: Paul Hood

One of them woos Tess with a famous love poem in a language neither of them can understand (it is one of many funny scenes); another, an old friend from home, pretends not to know her – it would look bad in front of his mates – before presenting himself as her guardian and protector.

They really are an insufferable bunch.

None, though, manifests masculine nonsense and hypocrisy like Dr Maudsley who delivers a lecture centre stage on the frailty of women and their tendency to hysteria – whose symptoms Tess is accused of displaying when she challenges him. For the men, every situation is a ‘win win’.

Fair play to Chris Goulding, puffing himself up to spout what we now know to be arrant nonsense in front of a big audience including row after row of young ladies from, I guessed, one of our local schools. Fortunately for him, they were not armed with rotten tomatoes.

On a well-conceived set with a stained glass backdrop and bookcases that can be wheeled to create various interiors, the action unfolds in a way that will make you smile and seethe alternately.

Ashton Matthews, left, with Ginny Leigh, Lauren Allison and Lauren Aspery. Credit: Paul Hood

For the women in authority, there is a fine line to be trodden if the goal of equality is to be reached.

Principal Elizabeth Welsh (Anna Dobson) is all for patience and not rocking the boat. Tutor Miss Blake (Sara Jo Harrison), drawn to the suffragist if not the suffragette cause, inspires the girls but lives dangerously.

Did the vote on the question of degrees for women, whose imminence is a thread throughout the play, go the right way in the end? You’ll have to go and see (and I urge you to do so) – but you might have guessed the answer.

This, incidentally, is a rapid return to the People’s stage for the words of Jessica Swale. Less than a year ago the company performed her Nell Gwynn. Sam Hinton, who was in it, directs this time.

Not a bad job at all… for a man!

Kidding, of course. But one final sobering thought is that in some parts of the world the themes of this play lie not in the past but in the present. The published version contains a dedication to Malala Yousafzai, the young Nobel laureate shot by the Taliban after sitting an exam.

Blue Stockings runs until Saturday, March 9. Tickets from the People’s Theatre website.

@DavidJWhetstone

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