The fifth collaboration between Lakeside Arts and the New Theatre presents an exciting and engaging take on Olivier Award-winning playwright Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, mixing laughter with heartbreak as director Martin Berry takes us through the trials and tribulations faced by the first women who tried to win the right to graduate from Cambridge’s Girton College.

Although there are notes of light humour throughout and individual stories to tell, this central struggle is undeniably the main theme of the play, with many of the characters feeling somewhat thin as their personal storylines all fall into reinforcing the problems Cambridge’s first women had to face.

“The character’s enthusiasm seems more due to Arnaud Lacey’s acting than the writing”

However though this lack of character development and certain predictable story-arcs prevents us from feeling any real engagement with all but two or three of the characters (Mr Banks takes central stage in all his scenes, though the character’s enthusiasm seems more due to Arnaud Lacey’s acting than the writing), this is also one of the play’s strengths, as Blue Stockings does a lot to show us the difficulties women had to face, rather than simply tell us.

“I left the theatre feeling ashamed of how much I take my education for granted”

And it does a great job of doing so. When I wasn’t laughing or watching with half-interest at the pre-digested story beats I was feeling genuine vicarious anger, and I left the theatre feeling ashamed of how much I take my education for granted.

“Jessica Kyndt and the rest of the creative team ensured that the stage was always aesthetically pleasing to look at”

Though Blue Stockings does not have the most exciting story, Jessica Kyndt and the rest of the creative team ensured that the stage was always aesthetically pleasing to look at, evoking the pretty-England aesthetic of Cambridge’s oldest colleges perfectly, and the use of books hanging from the ceiling turning into foliage on the floor underneath the green light during the orchard scene was inspired. The quick transitions between the unfortunately short-lived scenes (the brevity of some scenes in no way helped the lack of engagement with the characters as beats occasionally felt cut short just when they were getting somewhere, as if Swale was trying to avoid writing difficult dialogue, betraying the fact that this was her freshman play) were accompanied by gorgeous music that ensured that even when Blue Stockings was at its least engaging, it was always pleasant.

“The boys’ drinking game is one of the most fun scenes”

And for those of us in the audience who are at university, there are lots to snigger at, making up for the fact that the gorgeous Girton college set design leaves a lot to be desired from Hallward. The boys’ drinking game is one of the most fun scenes and will no doubt inspire some imitators by those who are bored of Ring of Fire, and there are plenty of arts v. sciences debates throughout for the most ardent on either side of the debate so stick their teeth into.

“Libby Boyd as Miss Blake and Kate O’Gorman as Tess are great feminist role models”

Blue Stockings is overall light entertainment with heavy and heart-wrenching overtones. Libby Boyd as Miss Blake and Kate O’Gorman as Tess are great feminist role models (even in spite of the tacked-on quasi-romantic scene at the end), and the play is worth a watch for anybody interested in the history of women in education or curious about the origins of contemporary university life in general (yes, there have been inter-sex tensions and flirtations since the beginning). Unfortunately if Swale worked more on developing her characters the play would have had more of a punch, but as it stands it is an informative, evocative and aesthetically-pleasing exploration of the fights women had to face to be allowed the right to graduate.

7/10

Matteo Everett

Image courtesy of Nottingham Lakeside Arts

Blue Stockings is running at Nottingham Lakeside Arts until Saturday 13th May, for more information and to book tickets, see here.

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