Director Cate Nunn on the play Blue Stockings, which she is bringing to the Old Fire Station next week

It’s a cliché for people to look back at their pasts and say “I had no idea how lucky I was”, but I really didn’t.

I was lucky enough to study at to Brasenose College at Oxford University, and at the time I certainly felt I had my share of obstacles to overcome: getting the grades, getting the student loan, surviving finals on a diet that consisted mostly of Jaffa Cakes.

When I thought about what I was grateful for, it was sunny afternoons in punts, the amazing Bodleian, and those long holidays which become a distant dream once you start an office job. The fact that, as a woman, I had the right to come here at all, to study and be accepted on the same footing as my male friends, was something I simply took for granted.

But directing Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings has made me realise how fortunate I truly was. Until I read it, I’d had the hazy impression that once women were allowed into universities (at last) in the 19th century, that was that: equality achieved. I’d had no idea that, for years, women were allowed in but were denied degrees at the end of it. When they left, they were seen as eccentrics and “blue stockings”, unnatural and unmarriageable women who didn’t fit the “domestic angel” ideal of the times – but who had no qualifications either.

A remarkable group of people were determined to change this: to give women the same recognition as men, and the same chance to determine their own futures. Set against the backdrop of the Suffragette movement and the struggle for a new, more just society, this is the fight that Blue Stockings charts.

It’s a witty, fast-paced and fantastically big-hearted play. Telling the stories of four very different young women who arrive at Cambridge in 1896. Blue Stockings draws you in instantly to the lives of bohemian, adventurous Carolyn; prickly spitfire Maeve, who’s fought tooth and nail to rise from the slums to the corridors of Cambridge; dedicated, intense Celia; and Tess, with her dreams of mapping the stars and falling in love.

With its demands for everything from climbing on the furniture to dancing the can-can and riding a bike round the stage, the production has its fair share of challenges. The most exciting one for me as a director, though, is finding the realness and the humanity in all of the characters – even those who look at first glance like heartless cads or bigoted reactionaries. Fortunately, my wonderfully talented cast are more than up to the task, handling poignant heartbreak and riotous comedy with the same ease – there hasn’t been a dull moment in rehearsals!

Blue Stockings is a testimony to the strength of friendship, and the power of idealistic people to change the world.

* Blue Stockings is on at the Old Fire Station from September 22 to 26.