Blue Stockings

Jessica Swale

Shakespeare's Globe

From 24 August 2013 to 11 October 2013

Review by Philip Fisher

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Before Jessica Swale, nobody has ever made their playwriting debut at the Globe. This is the mark of the high regard in which this well-regarded director, trying a new artistic avenue, is held.

Blue Stockings is by no means the perfect article but it has much to commend. Indeed, at various points, it might even persuade hard-nosed misogynists to discover some of the merits of women, if not actually become dyed-in-the-wool feminists.

The drama is set at and around Girton College, Cambridge in the dying years of the nineteenth century. There, a quartet of intrepid would-be scientists, all female, embark on a course of education in the teeth of outrageous prejudice from some of the most intelligent men in the kingdom (a strange title for a country ruled by a Queen, one might think).

The travails of determined Tess (Ellie Piercy), wealthy, well-travelled Carolyn (Tala Gouveia), supportive Celia (Olivia Ross) and working-class Irish Maeve (Molly Logan) as representatives of a whole gender are followed through 2½ tempestuous hours with far more downs than ups.

From the start, despite remarkable intellectual abilities, their status and ability to learn are questioned, with the old saw that a woman's place is in the home trotted out with tedious regularity.

The focus soon lands on astrophysicist Tess, strongly played by Miss Piercy, who is pursued by both an old childhood friend, Will and a fellow student met during a comic library scene, Ralph (respectively Luke Thompson and Joshua Silver).

Her fortunes in love are all too predictable, while the women's battle for recognition, with suffragist overtones, are much more satisfying, leading to physical warfare before the final (not-)curtain.

Jessica Swale's plotting can seem overly simplistic with too many conveniently tied loose ends but she writes wonderfully informative and stirring speeches for several members of a large cast. These are frequently passionate and embellished by humour, especially that offered by the hindsight of a further century of feminine and / or scientific achievement.

The Globe might seem like an odd venue for this modern work. It has been commissioned to illuminate the Shakespearean contributions to this Season of Plenty, although its most obvious counterpart in the canon, The Taming of the Shrew, was seen last year.

In any event, despite the odd over-earnest moment, John Dove ensures that visitors will both learn and be suitably entertained by a promising debut that builds to a tense finale.

This is certainly a crowd pleaser too, as the audience got seriously involved, regularly applauding the plucky ladies and even jeering an overly macho bigot on occasion.