As a piece of theatre, Blue Stockings certainly sets itself a difficult challenge – to dramatise the progress of four young women as they enter Girton College in Cambridge just before the turn of the twentieth century. First put on at The Globe in 2013, Jessica Swale’s bittersweet tale manages to walk the line between period drama and agit-prop – working in broad strokes to craft a decidedly populist piece of theatre. Having gone up on the Union Stage this previous weekend, one can certainly say that this St Andrews production of Blue Stockings, directed by Helena Jacques Morton (of Blind Mirth fame), brought out the best in its talented cast.
That’s not to say the play was for everyone – and the question of whether or not you would enjoy the show probably comes down to whether you would you rather watch The Railway Children or Suffragette on a Sunday night. If you are looking for a gritty tale of insurrection against the patriarchal masses – chances are this was not the play you were looking for. Yet if you were up for a show that fully embraced the period aesthetic, that could with one hand welcome the innate tweedom of the script, whilst waxing out its comic potential with the other, then this was the play for you.
I myself fall somewhere in between these two camps. While for a lot of the show, I could certainly admire the quality of the acting – with Ed Fry and Milly Clover on good form and Matthew Colley continuing his campaign for this reviewer’s favourite comic performer/goofy heartthrob of the 2015-2016 season – at times something felt lacking. For me this most likely derived from one of two things; primarily, I felt the story hard to connect to because of the episodic nature of the scene structure. Each scene felt like little vignettes into the world of these students – which aided the show’s comic potential, and yet meant that we never had enough time with each character. The second issue was born from the show’s slight unwillingness to let some of the more dramatic scenes stand for themselves – playing up comedic aspects where there may not have needed to be.
Yet by the end of the show, I didn’t really care about any of that. For in Blue Stocking’s penultimate scene – Alice Gold, playing Elizabeth Welsh, came on and stole the show. As an unruly mob marched towards the stage – protesting the possibility that women might be allowed to get degrees – she came out before them and broke down, and I finally got the play. I finally understood why this story was so important – it wasn’t just a play about a woman’s right to an education – it was a play about a group of women who were consistently oppressed by those who appointed themselves our countries best and brightest, and yet, in the face of horrendous adversity, dusted themselves off, forced a smile, and continued onward. It may have painted in broad strokes, and it may have had issues – but once I reached the destination Blue Stockings had been taking me to, I could look back and admire the journey for what it was.