Saturday, May 21, 2022

Blue Stockings – talented youth cast hold up an 1897 mirror that highlights 2022 inequalities (Lyric Drama Studio until Saturday 21 May)

Jessica Swale’s fast moving play Blue Stockings examines the lead-up to the 1897 Cambridge University vote on whether women should be allowed to graduate. Seen through the eyes of four female students at Girton College, the audience witness the prejudice towards these so-called “Blue Stockings”, with their physical capacity to study and moral motivation of apparently choosing learning over family life called into question. An early quote from the play sums up the prevailing attitudes:

“There are some women who choose to overlook their natural maternal instincts in favour of academia, but the fact of the matter is that women cannot dispense with the physical limitations of their sex. A woman who expends her energy exercising her brain does so at the expense of her vital organs, leaving them unfit for motherhood.”

Elevating the quality of the script is the injection of complexity: not all women share the same views on female education, not all staff at Girton agree on the strategies being employed. And there’s a clash between those wanting to rationally argue for graduation rights and the Suffragette movement, potential allies but seen by some as being far too extreme.

The Lyric Drama Studio’s spring production is always a highlight, showcasing emerging talent and able to stage a play with a larger than usual cast and less need for the doubling of roles. Blue Stockings brings twenty performers into the Naughton Studio space, with seating on three sides of Stuart Marshall’s well realised college courtyard set. Moody lighting (Mary Tumelty) and atmospheric sound effects (Chris Warner) help move the audience through the blizzard of scenes in Swale’s script.

Melanie Lavery imbues astronomy student protagonist Tess Moffat with a bold spirit, intellectual vitality, wit and rage. Cycling around the cramped courtyard is also quite an achievement. Real-life head of Girton College Elizabeth Welsh is ably brought to life by Mary Gyles, steering a stealthy line of least possible offence towards her goal of women’s equality in the university system. Her heartless but strategic treatment of Maeve Sullivan (Sophie McGibbon), a poorer student whose scholarship is withdrawn when her family circumstances change, creates a pivotal moment in the plot that unfortunately removes one of the sparkier students.

Aaron Ferguson (playing undergraduate Lloyd) delivers a powerful second act speech about the history of male rule before switching from bluster to threat when challenged. Liam Rowan keeps the audience guessing whether suave Ralph Mayhew is as wonderful a catch for Tess as he first seems. Kealan McAllister brings out the integrity of Thomas Banks who lives with the consequences of tutoring at Girton as well as the male environs two miles down the road of Trinity College.

We might smirk when a man lists jobs unsuitable for women – running the country, being an engineer, and developing a vaccine for smallpox – but while the storyline is set nearly 125 years in the past, the issues endure today.

I interviewed Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell last year and edited her contribution to a radio programme. She had to fight to study science at school. A university list of staff once labelled her as ‘Mrs’ rather than ‘Dr’. Her supervisor was awarded a Nobel Prize rather than the student who spotted the pulsar (though research students’ low rank in the academic pecking order played into that decision). But the astrophysicist observes that there is still much room for improvement in the treatment of women and people from minority backgrounds in academia, and has invested her own recent significant prize money into bursaries to address the inequalities. While most scientists speaking out about their areas of expertise around COVID and vaccines have received challenge and abuse, the strength and vigour of online bullying towards some local female scientists has been appalling.

Women still only make up a third of the MPs in the House of Commons and MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Female MPs are criticised for wearing skirts and crossing their legs, while the campaign of Northern Ireland election candidates were attacked with fake porn.

Gender pay gaps still sustain. COVID lockdowns stalled women’s progression in industry. It was another 50 years before the women of Girton could graduate. Will it take another 50 years – or longer – before gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps are properly addressed?

The Lyric Drama Studio chose well with this year’s play. There’s a lot of energy, a lot of laughter, and very tight production values, with the cast entering the theatre from unusual directions, often carrying in tables and chairs to reset the stage under the cover of Warner’s booming string stab musical interludes (that wouldn’t be amiss on a current affairs TV show). Director Philip Crawford will be proud of what the cast, creative and production team have achieved in a short time. I doubt it’ll be the last time that many of the performers will be gracing the stage of the Lyric or elsewhere in the city.

Blue Stockings finishes its sold-out run this evening in the Lyric Theatre. 

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