Helena Jacques-Morton made her directorial debut at the St.Age on the February 26th and 27th with her production of Blue Stockings, a play about the scholarly girls of Cambridge, fighting for their right to graduate. In this piece by Jessica Swale, four talented young women defy the prejudice of their age, endure the mockery of their peers and teachers, and pursue knowledge and personal growth.
The script itself is poorly written for a modern production. The main story of Blue Stockings is told through a series very short scenes, which occasionally seem far too brief to add anything valuable to the plot. The comedy is juvenile, the dialogue tacky, and the plot arcs predictable. The script tries to crowbar in several political disputes at once, and doesn’t really resolve any of them. If, however, the point of this show was not to put on a grand performance, but to outline the struggles of female students in a dramatic form reflecting the period, then Blue Stockings succeeds.
The production of the show itself also fell a bit short. The occasional mistimed sound cues and cast jitters could be excused as opening night nerves, but lines that were spoken too quietly to hear were a major distraction from the show. For instance, Ralph Mayhew (Jon White), one of the male students, failed to project in his romantic scenes with Tess Moffat (Milly Clover), which left key dialogue unheard. Though I understand that it may have been difficult to work through the pacing of scenes simply because of the size of the cast, I was also disappointed in the lack of comedic timing and the occasional unnatural dialogue. Especially given the heavy themes touched upon, the show would have benefited from more thoughtful integration of silence within scenes and snappier exchanges between characters. Alice Gold (as Principal Emily Welsh) delivered an excellent performance, but could have improved her pacing within busy scenes.
It was difficult to tell what the play’s direction was trying to convey. Sometimes, it seemed as though the director was trying to obscure the hokey dialogue with stage direction, whilst other scenes saw the juvenile immaturity amplified. This lead to inconsistencies in the tone of the play: less an ebb and flow of levity, and more of an on and off switch. For example, soft-spoken student, Maeve (Jen Grace), seemed to only speak in outbursts, which stopped the progress of the scene. These emotional moments always seemed out of place, and only served as hammy introductions to conflict. I would have liked to have seen a more controlled Maeve, as I think would have better suited her character, and there would have been less attention called to the surges. Similarly, I believe Mr. Banks (Michael Grieve), the students’ science teacher, would have benefitted from a more dynamic approach to the role, giving the audience a less chipper, but more moving character.
The scene changes were numerous and long, and because of the show’s slow pace, felt even longer. With better use of the performance space, like having multiple sets prepared at once, the transitions could have been smoother and shorter. There also wasn’t much blocking for characters between their entrances and exits and the lack of movement onstage combined with less expressive dialogue meant that some scenes felt stagnant. A better utilization of the space could have quickened the pace and improved the overall performance.
Blue Stockings’ redeeming factor was its cast. I enjoyed the performances of all four of the female students (Milly Clover, Mishia Leggett, Cate Kelly, and Jen Grace) and Will Bennett (Olli Gilford) as a conflicted but well-meaning friend to Tess. Miss Blake’s (Amy Chubb) passion as a suffragette brought energy to the stage, and Lloyd (Ed Fry), the antagonist, was perfectly despicable. But I was most impressed by the supporting cast, notably Billy Sullivan (Jonathan Hewitt), Mr. Peck (Peter Simpson), and Mrs. Lindley (Valentine Moscovici), whose presences onstage brought more life to every scene. The professors Collins, Anderson, and Radleigh (Miles Hurley, Elliot Douglas, and Harrison Roberts, respectively) embodied the elitist sexism of the age, and worked cohesively as a force against the girls. Undoubtedly, the most remarkable part of Blue Stockings was how a cast of such a large size succeeded in both working together and enjoying themselves whilst doing so.
Blue Stockings accomplishes what it sets out to do: shed light on the struggles and discrimination facing young women in higher education at a time before they were seen as equals. The subject is certainly relevant in today’s world, and especially relevant at a University. While I found the show overly quaint for my tastes, a theatregoer expecting a pleasant, “twee” play would probably have found the production quite enjoyable.