Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh – until 11 Nov 2017
There is a real sense of anger and fight to the EUTC’s production of Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings at the Bedlam to Saturday, about the first female students at Cambridge University. Following the fortunes of four first year science students at Girton in 1996, this is a production which feels quite right to stage now. Girton was the first college to admit women and it was in 1996 that Cambridge University first voted on whether to grant female students the right to graduate.
Blue Stockings reminds just how far we have come in the last century in terms of education for women – and indeed for anyone who does not belong to the privileged elite. It also demonstrates how little has changed in the sense of entitlement to rule over everyone else felt by those privileged few.
The four students are given a spirited interpretation, with Meredith Mack particularly strong as Tess who has to fend off the advances of her childhood friend, Will (Michael Zwiauer), who feels he is duty bound to protect her, but is also conflicted about even recognising her in front of his own friends.
Lizzie Lewis gives a strong presence to Maeve, the only working class student, who is not afraid to express her moral outrage at the privilege of her fellows, but also carries an incisive, inquiring mind. Until pulled back by the call of duty to her family when she sacrificed by the college in the search to win the right to graduate as an example of how it will do the right thing.
Domi Ucar gives just the right level of nonchalant head-in-the-clouds to well-travelled Carolyn while there is a real earnestness to Hannah Churchill’s Celia. Each of the four characters represents a different facet of the student body – which not always to great service of the actors creation of them, but it serves Swale’s sharply focussed telling of the story.
So focussed, indeed, that she brings in Dr Henry Maudsley as a witness for the level of blethers put out by men in the defence of their ivory towers against the hysterical harpies who dared to want to be educated. Maybe his tract Sex in Mind and Education was a bit before the events of the play, but it serves well, and Rob Younger does an excellent job of delivering his bilious nonsense which, heard now, is pure comedy gold, but which at the time was seen as common sense.
The friction between female and male students is well brought out over the hugely episodic piece, which often bounces from one to the other between scenes. Xavi Bird does a convincing turn as the lad who falls for Tess but hasn’t the guts to tell her when he feels the need to take up with someone else.
But is is Joshua Zitser who pulls out the most vicious and vile character of the whole play, with his creation of Lloyd, whose deep-seated sense of entitlement and arrogance epitomises everything which is wrong about the opposition to female education. He succeeds in giving the whole piece a wider relevance, as it hints at other, more contemporary fights by elites to defend their rights against the many.
In a generally well-drilled 16 strong cast, Laurie Meckoff is convincing as Mrs Welch – head of Girton who is determined to push through the vote on graduation. Heather Daniel as Girton teacher Miss Blake and Callum Pope as Trinity College lecturer Mr Banks, teaching at Girton in his spare time, both keep the focus strong.
Director Georgie Rodgers ensures that the whole piece hangs together nicely, although she doesn’t always serve her actors as well as she might in terms of staging and blocking. Rowan Crerar’s slightly abstract backdrop set is simple and serves the episodic structure, although Rodgers’ use of music to hide the scene changes needs to be less rigid.
What Rodgers doesn’t miss is the passion of the piece, and that is what really fires it. She finds and brings to the stage, a passion for understanding and equality which fired its participants to continue their fight for a further 52 years, and gives that fight a necessary context for a contemporary view. Great stuff.