Blue Stockings

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow Neil Cooper

Four stars

The Cambridge ladies of Girton College do much better than their male contemporaries in Jessica Swale's 2013 dramatisation of the struggle to have students graduate from the UK's first women-only seat of learning. Their academic achievements don’t do them much good, alas, in Swale's timely lesson in how, more than a century after the play is set, equality on campus and everywhere else besides should never be taken for granted.

The ensemble of fourteen final year BA Acting students who add fire and passion to Becky Hope-Palmer's production seem understandably galvanised by such a fiercely intelligent work. The play focuses on four young science students at Girton, whose enquiring minds are only occasionally distracted by the over-privileged boys who they must keep a respectful distance from. In the main, however, Tess, Carolyn, Celia and Maeve keep their eyes on the stars that could lead them to infinite possibilities if they are ever allowed the opportunity.

The play itself is a beautifully constructed piece of work. There's a user-friendly charm to Swale's writing that gives the play a power which a more polemical approach might have undercut. The drama looks at class as much as gender, with Sharon Mackay’s Maeve forced to leave her course to look after her family in a way that still reflects the plight of some poor students today. At the centre of the story is the everyday contradictions between science, art, head and heart which Tess, played by Mary McCartney with a sense of perennial curiosity, must square up to if she is to have a chance of greater glories.

While the boys are the Cambridge equivalent of Bullingdon bullies, with Harri Pitches’ portrayal of one little charmer a particularly effective study of arrogance, McCartney, Mackay, Carolina Lopes as Carolyn and Alice Masters as Celia give as good as they get. Arriving at a time when middle-aged men still get to play God regarding rights for women, Swale’s play is an entertainingly serious historical primer that points to how, despite many leaps forward, in terms of education for all, the work is far from done yet.