There’s been more than a note of feminist insurrection in the air lately: the summer was marked by robust backlashes against Twitter trolls and twerkers, while comic Bridget Christie just scooped top award at the Edinburgh Fringe with her sexism-baiting ‘A Bic for Her’. And as autumn havers into view, this writing debut from director Jessica Swale fits the mood just perfectly.
Set in 1898, ‘Blue Stockings’ concerns the hurdles faced by the first generation of women to attend Cambridge University. At its best, John Dove’s production is a classic Globe rabble-rouser, the audience whooping deliriously as the quartet of student heroines stick it to the various caddish men who would oppose them.
Swale made her name directing outrageously enjoyable updates of Restoration comedies, and she’s got a good eye for a big character. Her chief protagonist is Tess (Ellie Piercy), a brilliant young astrophysics undergraduate, tormented by the knowledge that she will have to give up any hopes of a ‘respectable’ life in order to become a scientist. She’s joined by Tala Gouveia’s Carolyn (the posh free-spirit), Olivia Ross’s Celia (the goody two shoes) and Molly Logan’s Maeve (the enigma).
Via the prism of the quartet’s exploits, Swale shines a light on some shocking recesses of our recent history – women who went to university during the reign of Queen Vic faced social ostracism at almost every level, and weren’t even awarded degree certificates for their efforts. ‘Blue Stockings’ conveys the injustice of the time without slipping into diatribe – the message may be serious, but the mode is a funny, feisty show about undergrad antics.
Yet for all this, it’s strangely lacking in direction. Though the story builds to a university-wide vote upon the issue of degrees for women, the four heroines feel peripheral to this process; in fact the biggest plot driver is the series of disappointingly conventional romantic dilemmas faced by Tess. It’s spirited good fun, but what might have been an absolute barnstormer of a night feels awkwardly in thrall to romcom convention.
By Andrzej Lukowski