Cambridge, 1890s. Four young women arrive at Girton College hoping to attain science degrees, pioneers in the fight for female equality.
The play Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale, performed to an almost full Garrison Theatre at the weekend by Islesburgh Drama Group, charted their baptism of fire at the august institution, and the audience loved it.
The action started with a train (amusingly portrayed by puffs of smoke and red lights) and the alighting of the young women, or more correctly girls, in bloomers, with one, Tess, being persuaded to try riding a bicycle.
But their struggles against male prejudice provided only a few lighter moments to punctuate the serious subject matter.
The four exceptional students (Sula Brookes, Cara Leask, Juliet Mullay and Lydia Hay) conveyed a mix of bookishness and girlish fun convincingly and proved most engaging characters. But would they be allowed to become the first women to graduate?
They were encouraged by evangelical female staff (Morag Mouat and Zoe Spence) who revealed that Girton College was once the safe distance of 20 miles away from the men’s colleges. It was now nearer – so near, in fact, that the four girls could meet boys from Trinity and Kings Colleges in the library.
Notes were passed, Tess became the object of love interest, and was forced to ponder the dilemma central to many women’s lives – love or knowledge?
Although heavily chaperoned by the comical Miss Bott (Jennie Atkinson), Tess managed some secret trysts in the orchard – the lighting and starry backdrop conveying the scene perfectly – and quickly fell for her suitor.
But her love, and the fun the girls had when one returned from Paris and demonstrated the can-can, were peripheral to the main theme – the girls knew they were “outcasts”.
However, it seemed that the boys were indulged in their fun and their drinking scene was comical, especially the antics of Edwards (Sonny Thomason).
But the advent of females to their protected bastion was difficult for them and they regarded the fairer sex with a blend of desire and resentment. The professors, too, saw them as a threat, and the ingrained sexist attitude of the time was typified in the lecture of Dr Maudsley (Andy Long) about the womb (hyster, giving rise to hysteria) wandering around the body. His was an excellent delivery but one which must shock modern audiences.
This attitude was also shown blatantly in the offer of a fellowship to sympathetic tutor Banks (Cameron Mackenzie) by a daunting panel of three grey-haired professors being swiftly withdrawn when Banks refused to stop “frittering away his time” by tutoring the females.
Male antagonism erupted into a riot when a suffragist-inspired vote was to be taken about the right of women to graduate. “It’s bedlam out there,” said the loyal Will (Martin Summers), admirer of Tess and female sympathiser, as hordes arrived on the streets, banners were torn down, blue stockings were burned and shockingly a female tutor was knocked to the ground by male students.
Even a woman in a restaurant accused the girls of “having no sense of womanly feeling”.
The boys were now divided and showed their true colours. “What are you going to do?” one asked a female student who wanted to be a doctor. “No man would ever be doctored by you.”
Although three of the girls passed their viva it seemed that Tess was deliberately failed. However, she vowed to be back and would never choose between love and knowledge.
The play’s closing words, that it was another 50 years until 1948 before women could graduate, were silently displayed on huge open pages of a book – an ingenious device to create maximum impact. Books were central to the play, with giant volumes forming the set’s walls and acting as steps for the action and necessitating minimal scene changes.
The lighting conjured up the atmosphere and throughout the acting was gripping. The young cast members in particular had a tremendous amount of dialogue to learn, peppered as it was with classical references.
Stephenie Pagulayan is to be congratulated on her first experience of production and direction which created a most enjoyable performance with an enthusiastic audience clapping between scenes and cheering at the end. A great effort by all concerned and another feather in the cap of Islesburgh Drama Group.