Set at the end of the 19th century, Blue Stockings tells the story of four young women chosen to study at Girton College, the discrimination they face from male professors and students, and the fight they make alongside their professors for the right for women to graduate from Cambridge. The recent production put up at the Union St.Age on the 26th and 27th of February brought out the charm and humour of the period, however a lack of direction meant the show ultimately failed to hit its mark.
The production excelled at capturing the quaint character of the era. Initially established by the musical theme played as curtains opened, this rich historical setting of the era was well sustained throughout the show with the use of elaborate costumes. Refined accents and speech mannerisms also worked to this effect, though sometime they bordered on the edge of caricature.
Morton and her team also tried to be creative with their set. They made a concerted effort to bridge the vast gulf between the audience and venue’s main stage using a platform down stage left and a set of stairs down stage right. Although this did create a more immersive experience by bringing the action closer to the audience, projection continued to be an issue for some and, more importantly, certain scenes were not clearly visible to anyone except the front row.
Far more problematic than the set was the staging of the action on it. Set changes took far too long and weighed down the pace of the production. Scenes, once set, were often too static – with little use of space onstage – and actors were frequently out of light. Beyond this fundamental problem, staging was often somewhat unoriginal. For example, the same set up was used not only for a lecture hall and a seemingly much smaller tutorial room, but also for a library.
This was only made worse by a seeming lack of spatial awareness of the cast whilst onstage. For example, in a scene supposedly set in the bedroom of student Tess Moffat (Milly Clover) one actor mimed opening a door, but others seemed to ignore its existence completely. In spite of describing the room as ‘cosy’ within the scene itself, actors moved throughout the considerably sizable real estate of the venue’s main stage. And, in a final coup de grace, when two characters attempted to slip past the girls’ sleeping chaperone, they do so by walking straight past her from their position centre stage to the downstage left exit – even though the dozing sitter is supposedly on another floor. These inconsistencies often drew one out of the show, and limited the impact it made.
Indeed, an overarching critique of the show is that it felt under-directed. This affected the characterisation as much as the staging – many of the characters of this notably large cast felt shallow. Some struggled to portray any genuine motivation at all, whilst others like Michael Grieve and Alice Gold, did not deliver to the full potential of their dialogue in spite of showing moments of excellence.
Yet the heart of this production lay in the performances of its four leading ladies. Clover’s charisma and charm as Tess Moffat; Mishia Leggett’s humour and graceful breeziness as Carolyn Addison; Cate Kelly’s industry and level headedness, expertly crafted through gestures more than the limited dialogues given to her; and Jen Grace’s vulnerable and moving Maeve Sullivan (brutally cut short in the script though she may have been) all worked together to form a touching emotional core that centred this production. Notable performances from Ed Fry as the patently vile Lloyd and Amy Chubb as the impassioned Miss Blake also deserve special mention.
This production of Blue Stockings excelled most in showing moments where the four leading women proved themselves against the stigmas of their time with humour, fierce intelligence and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. However it failed at stitching these moments together. In a show replete with powerful messages on the importance of education; why it should be available to all; and the bravery of those who fought a seemingly impossible struggle to secure their right to acquire it; a lack of direction and vision meant that rich ideas and eloquent speeches lacked genuine passion, and felt empty. Ultimately, it was an enjoyable period drama, but one that had the potential to be so much more.