It’s good to welcome the National Youth Theatre back to London for their 2017 season. At the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, they revived Jessica Swales’ Blue Stockings, first seen at Shakespeare’s Globe and for which NHB have now published a useful resource to support its production, for details of which see page 77 of the current issue of Sardines magazine.
As would be expected of the NYT, this was an extremely impressive account of the play by a strong cast and was directed by Alice Knight, herself the recipient of a past NYT Director Bursary. Designer Kate Lane provided two areas of flooring, each composed of sections of grass, cobbles and flagstones, a deft solution to the need to suggest the colleges of Cambridge.
Those members of the cast playing students had the advantage of parts close to their actual ages, but there were also some fine cameos of older characters, their age suggested through subtle changes rather than relying on appearance. Dajay Brown was an imperious Dr Maudsley and Leo Flanagan as Banks contributed a detailed and thoughtful performance which grew in stature in line with his character’s development.
In one of the key female roles, Daisy Porter gave a convincing account of Miss Bott, hinting at the fire beneath the repressed exterior before revealing it, and Laura Trosser commanded the stage when addressing the Senate. As College Principal Miss Welsh, Amy Parker gave a mature and authoritative performance. In a well-written role which cut across some of the more oppositional gender politics of the play, Quinton Arigi gave a sensitive account of Will.
The roles of the three students who are still at the college at the end of the play – if not all yet successfully – were nicely differentiated and made a believable friendship group. As Carolyn, Nadia Hirsi was impulsive and excitable, while Millie Boardman made much of the role of the determined Celia. As astronomy student Tess, Mischa Jones is at the heart of the play and much of the final action revolves around her emotional and truthful performance. She was particularly effective in the quieter scenes with Will, and this was an impressive portrayal by Jones, an actor to watch.
Just two caveats however. The use of overhead projectors to show images of documents was mostly ineffective and distracting. As generations of teachers discovered, it is very easy to put a transparency on the projector upside down or back to front, and this happened frequently. The hard shadows from the projectors also diminished the effect of the lighting design.
The other concern was the venue. The staff were very pleasant, the vegan food was interesting and the venue would have suited a two-hander; but the Yard Theatre has all the character of a tyre-fitting depot. A coat of paint and some more seat cushions would help – and the lack of air-cooling is perfectly understandable given the small budget the theatre must have – but this venue was not suitable for a large cast well-known play with broad general appeal. The NYT has a prestigious history and this cast will have played many regional venues before managing to get in to the NYT; they deserve a venue that suits their production.