The accidental playwright – the ‘nugget of history that deserved a platform’

There’s a very special play coming to The Stables Theatre next month that will be entertaining, amusing and thought provoking all at the same time.

It’s particularly poignant too that with International Women’s Day happening on Sunday rehearsals for Blue Stockings, directed by Aisling Tigwell, are ramping up in advance of opening night in a month’s time.

It’s a play that was written almost by accident, it’s writer Jessica Swales said in a recent interview: “I was a director for nearly a decade before I accidentally wrote a play.

“It was only when I stumbled upon a nugget of history which I felt deserved a platform, that I realised there was a story I wanted to tell. I’d been reading about women in the late 1800s, and found that women at Cambridge University were denied the right to graduate, and that when they’d tried to protest, there had been violent riots.”

Blue Stockings received its professional premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe, in London, in August 2013 when it was directed by John Dove. It was Swale’s debut play and is a moving, comical and eye-opening story of four young women fighting for education and self-determination against the larger backdrop of women’s suffrage.

It’s set in 1896 at Girton College, Cambridge, the first college in Britain to admit women. The Girton girls study ferociously and match their male peers grade for grade.

Yet, while the men graduate and leave clutching their degrees, the women left with nothing other than the stigma of being a ‘blue stocking’ – an unnatural, educated woman. Despite all their efforts they were denied degrees and left to go home unqualified and ‘unmarriageable’.

In the play Tess Moffat and her fellow first years are determined to win the right to graduate but little do they anticipate the hurdles in their way: the distractions of love, the class divide and the strength of the opposition, who will do anything to stop them.

The play follows them over one tumultuous academic year, in their fight to change the future of education.

While Aisling has directed before this is the first time she has directed a play at The Stables. She loves theatre, first appearing in panto, in Fairlight Hall when she was six years old. She got the bug and its stayed with her ever since.

Directing a piece like Blue Stockings is an enormous challenge and she acknowledges that it’s an ambitious play to undertake. After the theatre decided it was a play they would like to put on Aisling was one of those invited to pitch for the role of director.

She says she was hugely excited to be asked just to pitch. The subject matter is very close to her heart, she says she has always been passionate about standing up for women’s rights in general and for access to education. She feels that the story of the women at Girton is often overshadowed by the wider campaigning by the suffragettes. She admits that until she first read the play it was a story that had passed her by.

According to Aisling Blue Stockings is not just a play about brave and courageous woman but about brave and courageous men too. She explained that while the Girton women were grudgingly allowed to attend lectures and seminars it was only if the male tutors were prepared to let them in – and many were not. Those who did were often belittled and faced ridicule from their colleagues. There is a character in the play, Mr Banks, who was looked down on by other professors for ‘daring’ to teach women but is central to the story.

Rehearsals for Blue Stockings have already started, Aisling says it’s a young cast and she wants to really push them to get the very best she can. Her sets will be minimalist and she wants to create a play that is ‘dynamic’ oh yes and there’s a need to have a bicycle on stage!

Since her stage debut in Fairlight almost 30 years ago Aisling has appeared in more than 20 plays and 14 pantos, she says she feels she comes alive on stage, “…it’s my release and a big passion in my life,” she says.

“Being involved in theatre and in acting gives you the opportunity to be someone else and be someone you would never be yourself,” she says.

But back to the play, was the young women’s campaign to be allowed to graduate successful? You’ll have to watch the play to find out! And you’ll also discover just when women did first graduate from Cambridge.

Blue Stockings will run from April 3rd until 11th.

Ticket information:
Adults: £13.50 
Under-18: £10.50 
Members: £8.50 (Members are advised that when booking online you are required to log into your account before selecting your tickets.)

Photographs by Peter Mould

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