Theatre review: Blue Stockings - Laughing all the way to the lecture hall

The first female undergraduates are celebrated in a sparky, timely and promising first play

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The Independent Culture

It's a name that you would get called if you dared to be erudite and female and – God forbid – express your opinions. I'm talking about back in the 19th century, of course, because these days "bluestocking" has virtually become an archaic pejorative, hasn't it?

Now running at Shakespeare's Globe, Blue Stockings is set in the late 1890s and performed in period costume – ankle-length skirts, button boots, hatpinned boaters. This is an engaging new play, however. Written by director-turned-dramatist Jessica Swale, it warmly celebrates the early, pioneering members of Girton College, who refused to accept that their place was solely in the home.

We follow a handful of students at the said groundbreaking establishment for women as they eagerly pursue a top-flight education. They push for Cambridge University to treat them as equals and grant them full degrees, in the face of institutionalised chauvinism and even mannequin-decapitating, misogynistic riots.

John Dove's staging begins, provocatively but also comically, with the high-ranking Victorian psychiatrist Dr Henry Maudsley, played by a rigidly patriarchal Edward Peel. Addressing the pit and galleries like a lecture theatre, and pointedly apostrophising only the gentlemen present, Maudsley pontificates about how the weaker sex's nerves and vital organs will collapse if they overload their brains. It'll leave them unfit for motherhood and, probably, maniacal, he opines.

Unfazed and with the flicker of a wry smile, Elizabeth Welsh (Gabrielle Lloyd) steps up to the front of the stage and, rising above Maudsley's sexism, says, "Ladies, welcome to Girton." She is the strategically canny principal of the college.

One of the pleasures of this production is that its heroines are intellectuals yet it's a Globe crowd-pleaser too. On the night I attended, Peel and Lloyd instantly sparked playful boos and cheers from the audience who, by the end were audibly rooting, en masse, for Ellie Piercy's Tess and her (fictional) fellow undergrads. Piercy is particularly winning. With a fine mind, and specialising in astronomy, her Tess is delicate-looking yet self-assured, nearly heartbroken by a romantic entanglement but rallying. Tala Gouveia is also pleasingly sparky as Tess's cosmopolitan friend Carolyn.

For sure, being Swale's first play, Blue Stockings isn't absolutely top grade. More finessing is required. Rather rudimentary tutorials, early on, strain to interlock the sciences and the arts. Surely, too, Welsh should momentarily don the dunce's cap for calculating that 800 years have passed between the founding of Cambridge University in AD1209 and of Girton in 1869 (an error reiterated in the programme notes).

With well over a dozen characters milling around, some are barely differentiated and developed. At points, the storyline jerks. Given time, however, you come to appreciate Swales's almost novelistic sweep, and many scenes – whether argumentative or amorous – contrive to be both emotionally and politically charged.

Thankfully, things have improved. But don't forget about Taliban supporters throwing acid in schoolgirls' faces, or, indeed, the bomb and rape threats tweeted, just last month, to Cambridge classicist Mary Beard and other high-profile women campaigning to get Jane Austen on a banknote.

Meanwhile, even as summer draws to a close and Cambridge's Michaelmas term fast approaches, it seems the silly season is just kicking off at north London's Park Theatre. Thark (***) is one of those legendary Aldwych farces, penned by Ben Travers in the 1920s and early Thirties, which are logged as comedy classics and yet rarely revived.

So, should you dash to catch this staging? Alas, not really. Director Eleanor Rhode has been hamstrung by a shoestring budget – as well as being, now, the victim of a hideously mixed metaphor. Travers' farce moves from a Mayfair apartment, owned by womanising, old Sir Hector Benbow, to the supposedly haunted, country mansion which he has just sold to nouveau riche Mrs Frush. However, rather than lavish, both properties look drearily jerry-built. Axing an investigative journalist from the plot hardly ups the laughs.

Still, Clive Francis is enjoying himself as the frolicsome Sir Hector, with a touch of the Terry-Thomas. James Dutton should be head-hunted by casting directors. He plays Francis's naively grinning fall guy with consummate comic timing. And Andrew Jarvis is storming as the Gothic butler, stalking the house guests like death warmed up.

Last but not least, transferring from the Edinburgh Fringe's Traverse Theatre to the Gate in Notting Hill, Grounded (****) is a riveting, award-winning monologue. It charts the gradual breakdown of an ace, female, US fighter pilot who fiercely loves soaring up into the blue. After having a baby, she's relegated to sitting in a trailer in the Nevada desert, staring at a grey surveillance screen and steering drones, long distance, to bomb terrorist suspects in the Middle East.

George Brant's script is punchy and poetic, subtly raising questions about 21st-century heroines, and who might be today's avenging furies. Lucy Ellinson's performance, caught inside a translucent cube that glows and flickers with static, is electrifying and superbly paced by director Christopher Haydon.

This begins the Gate's new season, These American Lives, three acclaimed plays from across the Atlantic, which take acerbic angles on whether our jobs define us and on how people are struggling to make a living. That should be interesting.


'Blue Stockings ( to 11 Oct; 'Thark' ( to 22 Sept; 'Grounded' ( extended to 28 Sept

Critic's Choice

Acclaimed at the Edinburgh Fringe and now at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Studio (Wed to 21 Sept), Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident interweaves accounts of heroism with compromise in crisis situations. Also transferring from Edinburgh, Fleabag at London’s Soho Theatre (Tues to 22 Sept) sees fast-rising Phoebe Waller-Bridge performing her entertaining monologue about trying to stop living on the wild side.