Storyhouse’s Young Company of actors aims to create work about topics and themes that affect young people today and through it spark important discussion and debate.
So at first glance a play set in 1896 Cambridge might seem a bit of a departure for the actors who have graduated from the company’s ranks with some making their professional Storyhouse debuts as part of an exciting spring on stage at the Hunter Street venue.
But as the young stars of Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings explain, while the story might unfold in Victorian surroundings the themes and issues it explores remain – sadly – all too relevant in 2020.
Based on the real-life campaign for women to be allowed to graduate with Cambridge degrees, Blue Stockings charts the path of four fictional female undergraduates – Tess, Maeve, Celia and Carolyn – as they navigate academia, relationships and face some brutal truths about the fight for equality.
The quartet of actors all come to this production, running in repertory alongside Miss Julie and The Suicide as part of Storyhouse’s new season of shows, with some impressive work behind them both as members of the Young Company and beyond Chester’s walls.
Last summer Louise Wilson, who plays the studious Celia, joined Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre’s company as a trainee, performing in the crowd-pleasing Twelfth Night.
Neve Kelman has acted with the National Youth Theatre and Liverpool’s Young Everyman Playhouse (YEP), while Esther Johnson has also worked with YEP among others.
And Rebecca Pegasiou’s previous credits include Cilla the Musical.
But Blue Stockings not only puts them firmly centre stage but it’s fair to say it might also be the most challenging show yet in terms of research and preparation for their roles.
Cambridge students were expected to have an impressively wide and in-depth knowledge, so Mrs Welsh, the real-life head of progressive girls’ college Girton, would no doubt approve of the way the four actors have immersed themselves in the story’s time, place and themes.
“I feel I could do University Challenge now!” laughs Louise.
Meanwhile, Rebecca talks eloquently about the added hurdle of class divide faced by her character Maeve, a scholarship girl from a humble background, explaining: ”She’s had to fight just to get on an equal level with the other girls before even fighting against, now, men as well.”
Swale’s story is set at the close of a century when, although the most powerful figure in the world was a queen, most women actually had fewer freedoms than ever before.
In the intervening 100 years, the UK has achieved universal suffrage, has equal pay written into law, and has seen female prime ministers, women police chiefs, law lords, company bosses and astronauts. More girls than boys now go on to higher education.
So why do the show’s themes – sexism, suffrage, misogyny, equality – still resonate with, or have any direct relevance to, the cast and their peers today?
For Neve, who plays bohemian Carolyn, the fight for equality is still very real.
“A lot of people don’t think there’s a barrier – we’re in 2020 and we don’t need to carry on fighting. But I think that’s coming from a position where you haven’t fully educated yourself,” she says.
“It might not affect your own life, but then you look at big companies, look at women in the workplace, and the amount of inequality is shocking.
“Take the Northern Powerhouse. Two years ago, they held a conference and all the panel speakers were men.”
“It’s not just men that can run a business,” agrees Esther, who appears as Tess. “Women are more than capable – and they want it so much more as well.”
Meanwhile, Louise highlights imbalances that still exist within education, saying: “Yes, lots of females are going to university but the subjects…my friend for example studies physics and she’s one of only two women in her class.
“In my own experience, I was always encouraged to do arts and English, whilst my brother was doing sports and physics and maths. And it’s also reflected in the toys we have when we’re younger. That still hasn’t changed.”
In Blue Stockings, the battle lines are drawn between the women who want equality of opportunity and some of the male characters who are violently opposed to that happening.
For the young cast, drawing lines between the sexes is a waste of time and energy; it’s consensus and conversation rather than confrontation that will help drive the change that still needs to happen.
As Esther explains: “Feminism isn’t just a women’s issue; we shouldn’t exclude men. Men need to be allies because if we exclude them from the conversation, and we don’t have their support, then we can’t make any progress.”
As for those four ‘Blue Stockings’?
Neve smiles: “They’re always excited and passionate, and optimistic. They’re never focussing on the negatives. They just strive for something new.”