Review: BLUE STOCKINGS at Holden Street Theatres

The early history of English women's university education.

Review: ULSTER AMERICAN at The Arch, Holden Street Theatres Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 20th May 2021.

Red Phoenix, the multi-award-winning resident theatre company at Holden Street Theatres, is presenting Jessica Swale's Blue Stockings, set in Girton College, University of Cambridge, in 1896. Established in 1869 by two women, Emily Davies, and Barbara Bodichon, the College was the first to admit women, and this play, superbly directed by Libby Drake, features four of them and all that they faced. She has done a remarkable job in creating a cohesive production with such a large cast and dramatis personae. Although they were admitted, they were not to be permitted to graduate and be awarded their degrees. Now, 27 years after its establishment, a vote is due to be taken on whether women are going to be permitted to graduate with a degree. New Zealand was somewhat ahead, their first female graduate receiving her degree in 1877.

The college was, in fact, established as the College for Women at Benslow House in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, a considerable distance from Cambridge University. It was 1873 before it was renamed Girton and relocated to new buildings at its current location.

It all takes place on Kate Prescott's bare set that has a custom-built moveable blackboard, placed between two large bookcases filled with old, hardcover volumes, as the universal backdrop. A wide range of chairs, benches, and tables are added and removed to create the many different interior and exterior locations.

The play begins with a quotation from a speech given by the psychiatrist, and advisor to the royal family, Dr, Henry Maudsley, who argued that educating women was a dangerous idea, and that their place was in the home. He stated that, "A woman who expends her energy exercising the brain does so at the expense of her vital organs. Mental taxation in a woman can lead to atrophy, mania or, worse, leave her incapacitated as a mother. This is not an opinion. It is a fact of nature." This shows the level of ignorance, misogyny, and prejudice that these women faced. He later lectures both men and women on 'female hysteria' in what is now an hilarious load of nonsense that, at the time, was considered fact.

The four young women are played by Jasmine Leech, as Maeve Sullivan, Laura Antoniazzi, as Celia Willbond, Kate van der Horst, as Tess Moffat, and Rosie Williams, as Carolyn Addison. Whilst the other three come from wealthy families, Maeve has won a place thanks to a scholarship, but their situation bonds them, overcoming any socioeconomic differences.

Carolyn's Bohemian family has taken her to diverse locations around the world, resulting in a series of name-dropping. Tess has a thirst for knowledge but begins to wonder, knowing that it will ruin her chances of marriage and a family, which of the two she is willing to give up. Celia is strongly committed to her education, and worries about anything that might derail it. The rise of women's suffrage is seen as a movement that must be kept separate from their own claim for recognition as genuine students, deserving of being awarded a degree.

Each of these central characters is given a sterling interpretation by their respective actors. Each gives their character a distinct individuality, bringing out their personalities, their hopes and fears, their elations and pains, their loves and disappointments. They also work as a tight ensemble. They present a microcosm of all of the brave women who chose to study in those early days, at great personal sacrifice.

Kate Anolak takes on the role of Elizabeth Welsh, the Mistress (the official title of the head of the college), with Rebecca Kemp as Miss Blake, who studied at the earlier College for Women at Benslow House, and now teaches Moral Science. These two create three-dimensional characters who each have their own strengths and flaws, at times aligning in their purpose to advance the education of women, at others, in conflict over Welsh's decisions. They give us a different perspective, expanding that which we get from their students.

The third teacher is Mr. Banks, played by Bart Csorba, who lectures at Trinity College, and helps out at Girton on a part-time basis. He teaches them the laws of motion by simultaneously teaching them to ride a bicycle. Their continuing to do so, riding astride, is seen as scandalous by the men. His teaching at Girton is a sore point with his colleagues, who try to dissuade him. Csorba gives a fine performance as a man caught between two worlds, trying to balance his loyalties to each of them as it all comes unravelled, his anguish clearly displayed in his facial expressions.

Kyla Booth plays Miss Bott, the austere, ever-present chaperone, adding an occasional touch of humour. The visiting lecturer to Trinity and Girton, the obnoxious Dr. Maudsley, is played by Brant Eustice, in another of his powerful performances.

Even with a cast of 17, there is a degree of doubling of parts and, apparently, it can even be performed by a cast of only 12. That doesn't mean that there is time for them to sit around backstage. The cast handles all of the set changes, and they take turns writing the names of each scene on the blackboard. The play does not have a continuous narrative, but is a series of numerous short scenes, taking place over an extended period of time during the young women's time at Girton.

Jackson Barnard, Matt Chapman, James Fazzalari, Lucy Johnson, David Lockwood, Tony Sampson, Sebastien Skubala, and Tom Tassone are amongst those very ably filling several roles, including both students and lecturers at Trinity College, adding further perspectives to the story.

The production also features an impressive costume design by Sharon Malujlo and a thoughtful lighting design by Richard Parkhill.

Red Phoenix has a reputation for high-quality theatre, and this production will only add to that reputation. Opening night was sold out and, if past experience is anything to go by, the rest of the season will be, too, so, if you haven't already booked, don't delay.

Photography: Richard Parkhill.

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