Cambridge University may have nurtured some of the most exceptional minds in history, but at the end of the 19th century it was still some way from experiencing its own age of enlightenment.
And as Jessica Swale’s excoriating drama suggests, intellect and common sense are not necessarily regular bedfellows.
It’s 1896, and while women are grudgingly tolerated within their tight sphere in the Fens (and tightly chaperoned here by the ever-present form of the raven-like Miss Bott) their push for the right to graduate from the university is viewed with a mixture of concern, distrust and outright hostility.
While male professors opine openly that humankind has a finite amount of energy and a woman’s use of her brain comes “at the expense of her vital organs”, at women’s college Girton the girls are taught to question and analyse in rigorous lessons that range from moral science to geology.
But even in Girton’s seemingly progressive halls, there’s division over how to achieve the long-desired parity – by reason and compromise, evoked in principal Mrs Welsh’s (Polly Lister) exhortation to “keep your voice soft and your brain sharp”, or by direct action as exemplified by Natasha Bain’s suffragist Miss Blake.
Above: Natasha Bain as Miss Blake. Top: 'Blue Stockings' Louise Wilson (Celia), Esther Johnson (Tess), Rebecca Pegasiou (Maeve) and Neve Kelman (Carolyn). Photos by Mark McNulty
Caught in the midst of all this are four female undergraduates – Tess, Maeve, Celia and Carolyn – whose cloistered lust for learning also comes into conflict with the brutal reality of potent outside forces, from society's expectations to family commitments to falling in love.
It’s the (sadly) age-old conundrum; can women really ‘have it all’?
Swale’s punchy script certainly ignites an impotent fury among watchers that mirrors that of its female subjects on stage – and at times an itching desire to leap up and deliver a withering rejoinder to her smuggest male characters!
The tussle for equality is played out in lectures and on a looming blackboard where subjects such as Hysteria – The Wandering Womb are a chance for some first class (with honours) mansplaining from both the bombastic professors and callow privileged male undergrads.
The world is strikingly realised in simple but strong fashion by Adam Wiltshire’s malleable staging, dominated by an arched wooden frame which is set in relief by changing charts of the constellations.
And director Elle While and movement director Yukiko Masui work with Storyhouse’s thrust stage configuration, with its walkway entrances and exits, to deliver a real sense of power, pace and momentum.
At Blue Stockings’ heart are the quartet of young women with a thirst for knowledge, played by four actresses from Storyhouse’s Young Company whose youth – and obvious passion for the characters and their predicaments - adds an extra air of authenticity to proceedings.
Carousing male undergraduates
Rebecca Pegasiou’s working-class character Maeve may make an early exit, but she does so with impassioned force, while Esther Johnson (Tess), Louise Wilson (Celia) and Neve Kelman as the confident bohemian Carolyn deliver similarly engaging performances.
Not only are the four central female characters played by members of the Young Company, but so are the male undergraduates and they successfully capture the boisterous horseplay of the public schoolboy combined with the casual sense of entitlement imbued in their sex and class.
Macaulay Cooper embraces the role of the deeply unlikeable, sneering leader-of-the-pack Lloyd, with gusto, while the others channel the young men’s underlying sense of conflict and unease.
Occasionally the action can feel a little gauche, but in a way that almost adds to, rather than detracts from, the world being created on stage.