“Man is born free,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “but everywhere he is in chains”. A fine sentiment we can all agree but the French philosopher extraordinaire forgets one major element in his statement… half the population. Roll forward 150 years from Rousseau’s heyday and while the landscapes may have changed men still hold sway over the world and nowhere is their dominance more acute than in the arena of academia. It is against this background of misogyny and domestic subservience that we find ourselves thrust into the lives of four would be female scientists at Girton College, Cambridge, in 1896. In a performance that basks in all the sumptuous opulence of an ‘Atonement’ or ‘Downton Abbey’ we follow the lives of brilliant young astronomer Tess Moffat (Georgia Kerr), posh free-spirit Carolyn (Cassie Webb), goody two shoes Celia (Alice McCarthy ) and the enigmatic Maeve (Nicola Taggert) as they and their peers battle to earn women the right to graduate. The three, in addition to the excellent Millie Corser – who adds wonderful light comic relief as their dour Scottish chaperone (Mrs Bott) and also as their mischievous maidservant, go on a journey from fresh faced students to grizzled campaigners by the conclusion of this engaging epic. These girls are tired of the gilded cages they are forced to occupy and will no longer accept the status-quo of being seen but not heard.
“The only thing we have for ourselves in this world is knowledge”Whilst the women tend to star the men more than hold their own with excellent outings from Will Coban as the object of Tess’s affections, Harry de Moraville as their inspirational and energetic science tutor and Sean Mulkerrin as the unrequited Will Bennett.
“Ladies, this is a lecture hall not a laundry”As impressive as the performances are, by all the cast, it would be easy to forget that these astonishing talents have not yet graduated from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – though it is obvious already that many of these young faces will no doubt be seen much more in coming years. Jessica Swales play is brought to life here by the excellent directorship of Donnacadh O’Briain and Florence Pettit‘s minimalist stage design. The set in particular is a highlight. Attached to two of the theatre’s pillars are two old-fashioned gymnasium climbing frames which can be swung round like farm gates into various configurations and act as walls, windows or other barriers as the action requires. The back wall and sides are blackboards on which we see the students doing their work. It makes for an effective and imaginative stage. That said though the ever changing scenery does begin to distract from the action and the pace does flag as a result at points. This though is a minor criticism in what is otherwise a thought provoking and entertaining triumph that engages with a compelling story that would make Germaine Greer feel like her work is done and builds to a truly memorable conclusion (the cinematic humming that helps bring preceding to a close is worth the entry fee in itself). Get yourselves along to this darkly edged, rabble rousing treat to catch many stars of the future while you can. By Kevin McGough Photos by Graham Burke In conjunction with the lovely people over at the excellent Tobacco Factory we at The Fix bring you previews/reviews of the best that this Bristol landmark has to offer. For more on what’s on click the logo below: