Review: Blue Stockings

York Settlement Community Players’ production of Bluestockings, by Jessica Swale, tackles the issue of women’s right to education in a play that by turns feels uplifting, challenging and deeply shocking. It focuses on four young women who have been admitted to Girton College, Cambridge, and their struggles to gain acceptance and academic recognition from both the University and from their fellow students.

Director Maggie Smales has put together a smart and compact production, which captures both the words and the intention of Swale’s script in depicting the humanity of those involved in both sides of the debate surrounding female education. Particular recognition must go to the four actresses playing the central female students – they have a believable camaraderie and there is a real sense of fun and companionship in the scenes that they share. The most painful scenes of the evening, concerning Beth Stevens’ Maeve Sullivan, are devastating to watch but beautifully executed.

Elsewhere, the male students also do themselves credit, particularly as they are faced with less developed characters than the women are. Finn Ella rises to the challenge of portraying Lloyd, his character, as both a real and believable character and also an utterly despicable character as the plot develops, handling the shifts of tone with considerable skill.

The adults in the cast are similarly well equipped despite having more peripheral roles. Special notice must be given to Stephanie Wood (Miss Bott) for her excellent comic timing, and to the Sophie Buckley (Miss Blake) and Beryl Nairn (Elizabeth Welsh) for bringing genuine and heartfelt emotion to the older women who lead the fight for recognition. Perhaps the biggest shortfall of the script is that it does not give adequate time for these women and their stories to be fully explained, as I was left wanting to know more.

The Studio at York Theatre Royal was a smart choice of venue for this production, as it utilises the thrust staging with competence to depict the various intimate academic environments that the characters inhabit. The lighting is relatively simple but sound is used to great effect to help the scenes, which are often quite brief, to flow into each other without interruption. It seems only fair here to mention Sam McAvoy’s stunning scores, beautifully executed by Rosie Rowley. The music is thoughtfully placed and helps disguise some of the more difficult scene transitions very effectively.

The chief challenge for the production is how to stage a script that changes scene and location swiftly, and often asks the impossible of production teams. In order to deal with this, there are some more stylised moments interspersed throughout the play. Some are more effective than others, and instances of puppetry and other choreographed movements felt a little out of place amongst the more naturalistic elements such as the costumes and characterisation. However, the fault lies chiefly with the script in terms of its suitability for stage, and on the whole, Smales’ direction is adept and well able to rise to the challenge.

All in all, this production is essential viewing for feminists and academics alike. It challenges presupposed notions about female education, and serves as a fitting tribute to the struggles of women to be recognised for their intelligence and achievements.

Bluestockings, written by Jessica Swale and directed by Maggie Swales, is presented by the York Settlement Community Players at the York Theatre Royal Studio between Wednesday 1st March – Saturday 11th March. Tickets available at the box office and online.

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