Review – Blue Stockings – Storyhouse, Chester

Picture: Mark McNulty
Review by Nigel Smith

IN seeking a vehicle to present their Young Company alongside the current repertory cast, Storyhouse could barely have chosen a better piece than Jessica Swale’s 2013 Globe Theatre success Blue Stockings.

Swale has already created vibrant adaptations of The Secret Garden and Stig of the Dump for Storyhouse’s Open Air theatre at Grosvenor Park and this, her first full length original play, seems a natural fit in the current season. All three works in rep here (it plays alongside new adaptations of The Suicide and Miss Julie) find different ways of challenging social and political norms and stereotypes.
Director Elle While has remained faithful to the play’s original time and place, as it is very firmly rooted in a particular moment in history. It’s 1896, and young women, although grudgingly given their own colleges, enabling them to study at Cambridge University, are not permitted to graduate. We follow a new intake of female students who embark on their studies to find themselves stuck between patronising male students and tutors and a burgeoning movement to fight for equal rights.

To further complicate matters, the cause is seen by many as being aligned to the wider campaign for suffrage, and those fighting for it are keen to keep the two issues separate lest the politics muddies the water for them.

The entire cast produce very strong performances, and they make excellent use of the space in Adam Wiltshire’s skeletal, set, which surrounds us with universe within universe amongst its dark wood and chalk boards.

The uncompromisingly bigoted views put forward by many of the male characters is all the more shocking at times because we know that such ideas still raise their ugly heads all too often today. The performers pull no punches in their delivery and at times you feel that some actors (in particular Macaulay Cooper who plays the slimily self-congratulatory Lloyd) are so invested in the parts that they may need an escort to get out of the theatre unscathed.

The play opens with a prologue in which a welcome to the new women is juxtaposed against a frighteningly misogynistic speech from psychiatrist, Dr Maudsley. At its close we are left with a projected caption, explaining the length of time that eventually passed before the twin causes of graduation and suffrage for women were finally won. Perhaps the dramatic flow might have been maintained for a couple more minutes if this were presented as a brief, dramatised epilogue, to bookend the piece with symmetry.
Blue Stockings is a splendid showcase of up and coming talent and is in repertory at Storyhouse until 15th March.

Star Rating: 3.5 Stars