It takes a lot of bravery to see a play at Bedlam in winter, but Edinburgh University Theatre Company’s production of Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings was worth sitting through the cold.
The play tells the story of some of the first female students at Girton College, Cambridge in the 1896, the misogyny and backlash they faced for choosing to study and their fight to be allowed to graduate with a degree.
The opening scene juxtaposes Girton principal Elizabeth Welsh addressing her new students on their first day of term with Dr Maudsley, author of ‘Sex in Mind and in Education’, giving a speech on the physical dangers of educating women. It’s a very powerful illustration of the rhetoric these pioneering women were contending with. It is absurd to the point of comedy that women were denied an education in case it interfered with their ability to have children, but as the story of these girls unfolds it’s obvious that it was no laughing matter.
We are introduced to the girls, Tess, Carolyn, Celia and Maeve on their first day at Girton. They are thrilled to be given the opportunity of an education, but aware of the prejudices that they will face. As part of their first science lesson, their teacher Mr Banks (Callum Pope) teaches them to ride a bicycle. The male students don’t believe their friend Edwards who claims to have seen a woman on a bike, saying it’s impossible as women ‘aren’t allowed’. Shockingly restrictive as this is, this is the boys’ attitude towards the presence of women at Cambridge and their amusement turns to more violent resistance as the play goes on. Ed Campbell really shone as Edwards, the fall guy of the boys group. His comic timing was perfect, and he was quietly hilarious without overdoing it.
As they begin their classes, they are met with enthusiasm from some teachers. Miss Blake (Heather Daniell), is passionate about fighting for the girls’ right to graduate and for the suffrage movement. She inspires the girls and pushes them to match their male counterparts grade for grade. Ultimately, their support for the girls costs both Miss Blake and Mr Banks their careers, such was the strength of feeling against them.
Each scene was titled, the titles appearing on a screen above the stage between scenes. This made the play seem like a series of vignettes, which worked well. It seemed natural to be dropping in on these characters at various points over the course of their year. However, the scene changes were often slow, and this made the run time of over two hours a little hard to bear in Bedlam’s less than ambient temperatures.
Blue Stockings confronts the audience with issues which in the UK today seem laughable. This production manages to find the humour in the situation. The comic moments are excellently played, but don’t take away from the gravity of the fight of these women and their allies.