Storyhouse’s rep season continues with a revival of Jessica Swale’s play about a group of young women fighting to gain a Cambridge education in the 1890s. Grudgingly allowed to study at the women’s colleges, their presence resented by male students and scholars alike, they still can’t graduate.
First seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013, Swale’s play makes a good choice to showcase the talents of Storyhouse’s young company, many of whom make their debut here. Esther Johnson plays Tess, arriving at Girton with a passion for astrophysics only to find herself momentarily distracted from the cosmos by the attentions of a fellow student. Louise Wilson, Neve Kelman, and Rebecca Pegasiou play the other young women, all similarly passionate, though from different backgrounds. Swale’s play makes the women’s predicament clear – an education was deemed incompatible with family life. They were also discouraged from becoming involved with the suffrage movement lest it damage their standing in the college.
Johnson’s Tess provides the production its heart, Natasha Bain, as conflicted teacher Miss Blake, its voice. There’s good work too from Charlie Knowles as Tess’ childhood friend Will and Pegasiou as Maeve, who following a family tragedy, is forced to abandon her dreams.
Swale’s play feels a bit like a history lesson itself at times and some of the characters are painted in broad strokes, especially the more brutish male students, something that’s particularly apparent on the intimate Storyhouse stage. There’s also a choppy quality to the writing – the scenes are often quite short and functional – but Elle While’s production is always engaging and it captures the women’s palpable hunger for knowledge, for learning, for life.