Review: Blue Stockings at Ilkley Playhouse

THEATRE has the power to make you feel – usually happy, sad or amused - but perhaps the most stirring is the theatre that makes you angry and inspired. Blue Stockings, directed with fervour by Yvette Huddlestone, at Ilkley Playhouse is definitely in the last category. This is a piece which makes you examine and consider your heritage, your values and at a time when our country’s politics are at best questionable and at worst frightening, is only too relevant. Set at Girton College in Cambridge in 1896, it charts the experience of four young female students who, at last, are permitted to study and yet for whom graduation is not deemed appropriate.

Dr Maudsley,(Dick Hebbert) declares early on that ‘women who choose to overlook their natural instincts for motherhood, by seeking further education’ are doomed to a life bereft of love. Love and education are seen as incompatible bed-fellows for women. And so the story and the struggle of the main protagonists – the Blue Stockings - unfolds.

Tess Moffat (Livy Potter) is a firebrand: highly intelligent and determined to pursue her understanding of astro-physics. Carolyn Addison (Nikki Ford) is perhaps the archetypal Cambridge gal – a well-travelled woman of the world, privileged and superior. Then there are Maeve (Jenny Button) and Celia (Felicity Woodhouse), the first a Northern lass, who has earned her way with her work ethic and inherent intelligence and the latter who has had to strive to maintain her place. These girls fight and work and think and show a desperate determination to be heard and valued. Constantly restricted and chaperoned, the girls are prevented from socialising, discouraged from contributing in tutorials and finally banned from lectures.

At every turn the female students come up against the animosity of the establishment – both professors and students alike. The young men that the girls encounter, greet them with both disdain and a degree of fascination – which manifests as attraction. Rob Paul, as Lloyd, is the first to make a move, arranging illicit meetings with Tess. Whilst he is slightly eccentric and foppish – wooing in love poetry he doesn’t understand – Tess is relieved, briefly, to find a man willing to consider loving a clever girl. His companions, in particular Ralph Mayhew, played by Matt Paul, is vitriolic in his disapproval of co-education. Powerfully Matt Paul delivers his speech, railing against women graduates, with a distinctly unpleasant aggression borne of fear and loathing. The juxtaposition of the women, studious and serious against the drunkenness and ribaldry of the men, is perhaps still sadly reminiscent of some elements of society today.

There is significant courage on display from the tutors who are willing to risk their reputations to teach the girls. Damien O’Keeffe, as Mr Banks, is the gowned-crusader – willing to stick to his principles in defending women’s rights and paying the price for it. Geraldine Woodhouse, playing head of college, Elizabeth Welsh, strives to find the balance between fighting a just cause in wanting equal rights, whilst not daring to step too far into the suffrage campaign.

This is ensemble theatre at its best. The passion that this cast feels for the story that they’re telling, one of injustice, determination and desperation, is palpable. The ferocity of Ralph’s speech serves to accentuate the passion of Ms Welsh, Tess and Maeve.

As the play ends, we could reflect on how far society has come: no-one in Britain questions women’s right to education anymore. Nagging though, is the thought that perhaps still have a long, long way to go. See this play, join the campaign and revel in the passion of these pioneering women – they will make you proud. Blue Stocking runs at Ilkley Playhouse until July 20.

by Becky Carter