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Theatre Review: Blue Stockings ****

Guest critic Mark Brown reviews a 'fine student production' that gets to the heart of women's struggle for academic rights in Victorian Britain.

Jessica Swale's acclaimed debut drama Blue Stockings (which had its world premiere at Shakespeare's Globe in London in 2013) is an excellent play for acting students to perform--as they do in this impressive production by final year BA Acting students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The piece tells the story of the pioneering women (teachers and students of Girton College) who, in 1896, fought (without success) for the right of female students (then known as "blue stockings") to graduate from Cambridge University.

The play makes for a fine student production for two fairly obvious reasons. Firstly, where better to tell the tale of the long and tortuous struggle for gender equality within Britain's universities than in a higher education institution? Secondly, unlike most dramas the students encounter during their training, Swale's piece allows many of the actors to play characters of similar ages to themselves (whilst also requiring a number of them to double, sometimes triple, up as older characters).

Director Becky Hope-Palmer's sharp, vital staging reflects Swale's powerfully direct dramatisation of the manifold pressures and barriers (including, ultimately, a violent, misogynist insurgency) that the female scholars faced. These include the prominent male professor who insists that "hysteria" (a word of particularly sexist etymology) makes women unfit for intellectual pursuits.

Interestingly, given the enduring (some might say worsening) class inequalities in higher education in the 21st-century, it is the working-class student, Maeve Sullivan (played with determination and righteous anger by Sharon Mackay) who bears the brunt of the misogynist campaign against women in academe. Having achieved a scholarship against all odds, she faces the demand of her family that, following the death of her mother, she leave university and return to her "natural" role as a carer and child-rearer.

Mrs Welsh, the head of Girton, (Courtney Gryphon on impressively upright and resolute form) is a committed-but-cautious campaigner for women's graduation rights. Wary of any association between her College and the growing campaign for women's suffrage, she is keen to reassure the men in power at Cambridge that she is not neglectful of women's nurturing role. Consequently she accedes to the demand of Maeve's family and dismisses the distraught young woman from the College.

The production, which boasts a tremendously unfussy, functional set and fabulously precise period costumes (both designed by Laura McCartney), positively bristles with strong performances. In particular, Mary McCartney impresses as Tess Moffat, the bright student whose romantic life compromises her studies.

There is more than a whiff of the Bullingdon Club about the male students of Trinity College (not least when, without irony, they celebrate their male chauvinism by singing God Save the Queen). Harri Pitches is repulsively Johnsonian as Lloyd, the most vociferous reactionary of the bunch. When the young men come to play the roles of the older male characters, there are a number of candidates for "Best Supporting Moustache".

This fine and memorable production has, sadly, ended its short run in the Conservatoire's Chandler Studio in Glasgow. However, it is yet to play to a lucky audience in London.

Blue Stockings plays at the Arcola Theatre, London on June 11

Mark Brown is theatre critic of The Herald on Sunday, the Sunday National and the Daily Telegraph. You can read his reviews at:

Tags: theatre

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