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Blue Stockings

Published 30 August 2013

To me it seems incredible that barely more than a century ago men believed a nomadic uterus caused hysteria and that education was a perilous pastime for a female who valued her health and wellbeing, the poor fragile darlings not being able to cope with both intellectual rigour and running around after men.

It’s probably my age and upbringing, but the thought that anyone should be denied an opportunity because of gender, race, class or favourite fruit seems preposterous.

So Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings is revelatory, certainly to me, in exposing a sour part of Britain’s past that was surreptitiously sidestepped in school history lessons.

In 1896, Girton College, Cambridge University’s first female institution, which had already been running for three decades, campaigned for its anatomically different students to be able to graduate seeing as they were achieving similar, if not better, grades than their penis-sporting colleagues. You can imagine how much of the all-male establishment, their protected status quo threatened, reacted.

Swale, better known as a director and making her full length debut as a writer, has created a Cambridge populated with passionate characters. For each of their faults, you can’t question their commitment to their beliefs.

From the opening statement by psychiatrist Dr Maudsley, which teeters between sounding utterly ridiculous and chin-droppingly shocking, to the tension between empowering suffrage-supporting lecturer Miss Blake and quiet graduation campaigner Miss Welsh, each character’s driving force is compelling.

Yet it is the love story of headstrong undergraduate Tess (Ellie Piercy) rather than the politics of the time that dominates the plot. Intent on grasping exactly the same opportunities as the men from the off, the talented astrophysicist has her head turned when she begins to see stars in the eyes of a boy.

For the most part there are few moments of revulsion at unpalatable views. Edward Peel’s blinkered Maudsley is unlikeable and ridiculous, the antithesis of Fergal McElherron’s inspirational and supportive Mr Banks, while it is only Tom Lawrence’s undergraduate Lloyd who truly gets under the skin with his arrogant attitude of entitlement. A simple, quiet “Get out” when aimed in his insidious direction received a cheer louder than many I’ve previously heard at the often raucous Globe.

The saddest truth, of course, is that though Blue Stockings is set a century ago, protests about the exclusivity of university continue. This new show is an entertaining, exposing and surprising way to re-ignite the debate.

 

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