The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School's production of Jessica Swale's Blue Stockings gives Bristol theatre-goers a chance to catch some of the finest young actors of tomorrow and to see one of the best of the Globe Theatre, London's recent world premières. The play portrays the experiences of four young women at Girton College, Cambridge in the mid-1890s, the hostility they faced and the difficult choices they were confronted with. It is a rich, witty piece, full of ideas and emotion, and the cast do it full justice.
Swales begins with an excerpt from a lecture from psychiatrist Henry Maudsley in which he refers to the ‘physiological limitations' of women and outlines his belief that their acceptance at institutions of higher education will be ‘detrimental to the family and future of society'. The playwright cleverly eases us in with lines which provoke knowing laughter in the contemporary audience before gradually shocking us with the true extent and virulence of the misogyny of late Victorian society. Given that we live in an era in which women face rape and death threats for daring to suggest a great female novelist might be a suitable adornment to a £10 note and comedians of the Frankie Boyle school regularly mock sportswomen and others whose appearance doesn't live up to their exacting standards, the modern viewer can ill afford to be complacent, however.
Swales' characterisation is also adept and director Donnacadh O'Briain elicits convincing performances from an excellent cast. Georgia Kerr as brilliant young astronomer Tess Moffat conveys the passion of intellectual discovery, the demands of standing up to bullies such as Maudsley and the torments faced when life in the form of her feelings for a fellow student intervenes. Nicola Taggart as the most able of the quartet and one from a background very different to that of the others breaks the heart as she is faced with challenges dictated by poverty. Alice McCarthy as the fearful Celia Willbond desperate not to step out of line, and Cassie Webb as the charming, well-travelled and sophisticated Carolyn Addison are equally vivid.
The women dominate but the men are equally convincing. Craig Fuller is chilling as the angriest of the young men opposing women's presence at the university. Harry de Moraville as one of the girls' tutors shows the price paid by some of the men who stood on the side of progress. Phil Dunster's twitchily nervous Edwards and Sean Mulkerrin's decent Will Bennett also stand out. There is not a weak link in the cast.
Florence Pettit's design looks superb. Attached to two of the theatre's pillars are two old-fashioned gymnasium climbing frames which can be moved into various configurations and act as walls, windows or other barriers as the action requires. The back wall and sides are blackboards on which we see the students doing their work. The only problem with the evening at the moment is its length. The show would be even better if 15 minutes or so could be shaved off the present three hours and five minutes running time: the scene changes are too long and the pace flags a little in the second half. All in all, though, this is a first-rate production of a play which provokes and entertains up to the very last line (projected on the back wall to a collective dropping of jaws) and performed by a cast all of whom I look forward to seeing on stage again in the near future.