No sooner had I finished my review of the University of Northampton’s Welcome to Thebes, I was back out at the Royal and Derngate for the second in this March’s season of Third Year Students’ plays and Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, set in Girton College Cambridge in 1896, and first produced at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013. Would my enthusiasm for the skill and craftsmanship of the young actors extend to this second play? Oh yes it would.
It’s hard from today’s perspective to appreciate how difficult it was for a woman to get a university education back in those days (1896 that is, by 2013 things were a bit easier). Certainly at Girton, it was very much tied in with the general progress towards emancipation for women, including the suffragette movement and a recognition that a woman could be more than just a baby-making machine. The play tells the tale of four women commencing their studies at this ground-breaking college. They come from very different backgrounds, but all have the same burning ambition to devote their time to learning, to self-improvement, and to preparation for a fine career. They are encouraged and nurtured by gifted and unorthodox tutors, but have to negotiate several stumbling blocks on the way.
The Mistress of the college, Elizabeth Welsh, is an eminently practical person who won’t risk the college’s reputation by being too avant-garde. The best brains in the land, like visiting Professor Maudsely, are also highly misogynistic when it comes to women’s education and refuse to recognise the female students as having any place in college. A random woman in a tea-shop berates tutors who fight for women’s recognition. And even their male fellow students don’t back them up, finding their female counterparts somewhere between risible and contemptible. The sense of injustice that the play – and the performance – creates for the audience leaves us furious at their opponents’ pig-headedness.
What really comes over in this production is how well the cast gel together and excel at telling this story. You can really believe the sense of intimidation and awkwardness at the students’ first meeting; the inspirational nature of their early classes; the imbalance of the attention bestowed on the male students at the expense of the women; the irritation caused to both sides by constantly having a chaperone present; and the loneliness and bravery of the women who choose this calling, giving up what society expects and requires of them, much to its disapproval. Of course, this is all expressed in the text, but it is the strength of the performances that really flesh out these hopes and fears and make them vivid for a 21st century audience.
The play calls for four strong central performances from the young women students and it certainly gets it! Lucy Kitson’s Tess is at the very heart of the play and we identify with her completely. Her hopes and dreams, her expectations, her disappointments, her joys all become ours. She is Tess; you never get the sense that this is a performance, it’s real. She makes a demanding role seem effortless – definitely a name for the future. I was also really moved by the performance of Sophie-Rose Darby as Maeve, a fish out of water as far as the Victorian class system is concerned, although not for her phenomenal intellect which Ms Darby conveys with great spirit and charm. When she resolves to stay in Cambridge despite the calls for her to go home I wanted to punch the air with support! It wasn’t the only punch I wanted to do in the course of the play, more of which later. Ellen Shersby-Wignall is excellent as Celia, dutifully studious and keen to do the right thing, but also allowing the comedy to shine through with her unique take on the Can-Can. And Danni-Louise Ryan makes a splendid Carolyn, the character oozing the kind of confidence that only money and breeding can bring, introducing a sense of brightness and daring to the women’s otherwise closeted existence.
I really enjoyed the performance by Rhiana Young as the tutor Miss Blake – challenging the women to think differently, listening intently to her students’ responses as she would, and reacting with perfectly-pitched fury to every attempt to denigrate their achievements. Stephanie Waugh as Mrs Welsh gives a strong account of an authoritative woman who permanently has to tread carefully to promote the college and her students, whilst knowing she has to live in the real world and make unpopular compromises as a result. I was so disappointed when she insisted that Maeve had to go home, she really let down the sisterhood there! There’s an amusingly awkward performance by George Marlow as Tess’s suitor Ralph, tentatively trying to know her better while observing strict politesse; Mr Marlow also shows his versatility doubling up with a very effective portrayal of Billy, Maeve’s brother, desperate in his plight and genuinely unable to understand his sister’s lack of traditional values.
There’s also a fantastic cameo from Stuart Warren as Maudsely, aggravating our sense of injustice as he rides rough-shod over Tess; a warm and funny performance from Jaryd Headley as the laddish Edwards (especially in his perfectly executed drunk scene); and an infuriatingly strong portrayal of the revolting Lloyd by Tom Stone, whose bullying and prejudice really made me want to get up on stage and punch him on the nose. I don’t advocate violence, but boy, would he have deserved it. There’s great support from Cynthia Lebbos and Elliot Holden in a variety of roles, Mr Holden in particular taking the role of Miss Bott and resoundingly making it his own. But primarily all the cast give solid and rewarding performances, putting storytelling at the forefront, and creating a very enjoyable experience for the audience by making this fascinating play live on in our minds and hearts well after the final curtain.
As in Welcome to Thebes, I am truly impressed at the standard of acting. You would never know this was an amateur production. Congratulations to all! I have one more university play to see today – this has been a very rewarding experience.