Blue Stockings are the reprehensible, the outlandish, the useless: educated women. In 1896 women are allowed to study at Girton, considered a “safe distance” from the scholars in town, but receive no degree for their years of toil. What’s more, their education makes them unfit for marriage, and, apparently, physically incapacitated for childbirth (that damned brain used up all the energy of the “vital organs”).
Swale’s story of four girls contending with the utter disdain of their peers, professors, and the public takes you from delight in the scintillating wit and fantastic knowledge of the students, through to outrage and indignation at the hateful misogyny and hypocrisy they encounter, along with intense bouts of pity and hopelessness at the insurmountable obstacles they face.
This delicate balance of triumphs and setbacks was addressed particularly well by the ADC cast, with several notable sequences. The vitriolic rant from Mark Milligan as Lloyd was especially scarring, as much as Isabelle Kettle as Elizabeth Welsh’s passionate outburst was heartbreaking. It was these scenes of intense emotion that really gave the production its potency, expertly nuanced with some truly funny moments of light relief.
Aside from a couple of stumbles there were only two main problems with the play. Firstly the stage set up with Tess’ bedroom far above stage posed some issues, such as door frames obscuring view of the actors, the front row craning their necks to see them well at all, and the back row at times straining to hear. Also, the scene changes left a lot to be desired: particularly in the first half, slow set changes were badly compensated for by inconsequential bursts of music, leaving the audience with that waiting-in-a-lift feeling.
Nevertheless, when the lights were up, the talent was undeniable, and the audience were entirely won over by Sophia Flohr as Tess Moffat and her classmates, willing them to keep fighting, to “go on”. The closing scene is of course upsetting when a banner descends over the cast singing ‘Guadeamus igitur’ quite beautifully, to say that indeed women did not get the right to earn a degree at Girlton until over fifty years later in 1948, despite the evident worthiness of these women so long before that time.
Whilst this seems disturbingly recent in itself, it is imperative to note that Swale dedicated this play to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who is fighting for the right to women’s education in her country. Just over a year ago Malala was shot in an unsuccessful assassination attempt by the Taliban: a haunting reminder that the fight is far from over.
You don’t need to be a Girtonian or even a woman for this play to make you feel honoured to be here, by seeing the drastic lengths women went to in order to have that privilege. That said, you sure will feel guilty about moaning about your deadlines this week. This play will make you laugh, maybe shed a tear, but most importantly, think.