Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
I was very glad to be invited to review Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale in a production by Guildbury’s Theatre Company at The Electric Theatre, Guildford, this week.
It came as a shock to learn at the end of the play that it was not until 1948, within the lifetimes of many in the audience, that women were for the first time allowed to graduate from university. This play, set in 1898, deals with the realities of the long fight by young women and their teachers for the rights of women to study and graduate from Girton College, Cambridge.
The political thread of the plot is entangled with a love story, as four young women begin the September term’s studies in the Science Faculty at Cambridge University. Alison Nichol, Claire Racklyeft, Jill Coles and Florence Wright, as Tess, Carolyn, Celia and Maeve, bring their various characters to life with humour and sensitivity. Ridicule, contempt, disbelief, disapproval and bullying from most of the men they meet (and some of the women, too) shake but don’t deter their ambition to “know about more than just me”.
Eleanor Shaikh (Mrs Welsh) and Denise Cassar (Miss Blake) give spirited performances as the committed Girton leaders who work towards the goal they cannot know will take another fifty years to attain. Hard decisions and sacrifices are made, as Mrs Welsh insists on patience, to avoid any charge of inciting girls to abandon their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Fearful of antagonising male power, she also stays aloof from the Suffragist movement. A step at a time, she says. First, women must gain equality with men in the professions. The prevailing male fear seems to be exactly that. Showing the choices between love and learning confronting the women, Swayle demonstrates the identity and role conflicts that serious female students faced.
Swale keeps to her agenda without descending to a “man-bashing” attitude towards her male characters. The aggressive/defensive voice of Maudesley (Jonathan Jones), the reactionary professor who in Scene 2 denigrates women in a brutal and shocking speech based on the real man’s writings, is balanced by a range of more sympathetic male characters in this well researched and crafted play.
Guildbury has dedicated this production to the memory of Doreen Bellerby. It's showing all this week until 28th March. You can book tickets here.