Book Review: Blue Stockings  

By Jessica Swale and Lois Jeary

Published by NHB

Blue Stockings, which premiered to a lot of praise at The Globe in 2013, was director Jessica Swale’s first play. It details and explores the experience of four fictional young women who went up to Girton College, Cambridge in the 1890s. This was decades before women were allowed to take the same exams as their male counterparts even if they did the same work. And they weren’t awarded degrees. Meanwhile Doctor Henry Maudsley (of eponymous hospital fame) was authoritatively telling the world the too much education damages a woman’s reproductive function and thereby confounding her prime function. All this, of course, is fascinating, especially in the post-Feminist (or not) culture of the early twenty first century.

Unsurprisingly, the play was very successful at The Globe and has since been studied and performed widely. The National Youth Theatre did it this summer, for example, and the large cast (about 19 depending how you work the doubling) makes it a fine choice for schools, colleges and youth groups. Now we have a guide to help with studying and staging it in NHB’s Page to Stage series.

Interestingly, this very accessible guide has been co-written by the playwright herself with Lois Jeary, so a lot of the information is, so to speak, straight form the horse’s mouth. In this useful book, we read, for example what led Swale to this subject and how she – as a director – imagines the casting and directorial decisions. For example the Girton girls should be free and easy and not played with heightened RP accents. Maudsley is not a monster. He was – and is – a respected practitioner writing and saying what he genuinely believed. The suggested games and exercises are excellent too and there are specific suggestions for rehearsal activities relating to each scene. Then there are sections on character study (including interviews with some of the professional actors who have played some of the roles) music, scenic construction and more along with a handy historical glossary relating to references in the play.

You certainly need this book if you’re teaching and/or directing Blue Stockings. There’s also plenty here for the students, themselves to read and reflect on.


Review by Susan Elkin