Would you go to university if you knew you couldn’t graduate? Is knowledge the point of studying, or is it the social recognition that comes with a degree certificate?

These are the questions faced by four young women at Cambridge University’s Girton College in 1898. Blue Stockings, named after the epithet given to intellectual women at the time, recounts their fight for the right to graduate, helped by some members of academia and discouraged by others.

The play, directed by Jessica Swale, begins on a light-hearted note, with a clever take on the logistical conundrums of teaching in a place where young men and women are not allowed to be in the same room without a chaperone. A (male) physics professor wants his (female) student to ride a bike to demonstrate the effects of gravity, but it is unfitting for a woman to hop on a bicycle while a man is watching.

The audience, a full house of men and women, is still giggling when things take a serious turn. Tess Moffat, one of the four protagonists, gets in trouble when she talks back during a lecture on hysteria. Divisions appear between the men, the women, and the men who fraternise with them. Female professors disagree on whether to support the suffragettes. One of the students, a woman from a modest background, threatens suicide when her older brother comes to take her home. Mother’s dead, he says, and their brothers and sisters need a mum.

Just as tears start welling up, it’s time to laugh again. Sarah Pyper shines as troublemaker Carolyn Addison, a world traveller who has lived quite literally all around the globe.

The music, composed by Oxford’s Jon Ouin, adds a refreshing touch. The writing, full of little surprises, brings a smile to the most attentive spectators. Helen Taylor steals the show as the play wraps up with a tearful monologue. Her unwavering pursuit of her goal, to get women the right to graduate, means she has to make some very harsh decisions .