“What if you had to choose? Between love and knowledge. What would you choose?”

This is the starting point for Jessica Swales’ exploration of the story of four female students of Girton College, Cambridge in 1896.

Blue Stockings by York Settlement Community Players

York Theatre Royal Studio

Till Sat Mar 11 @ 7.45pm, Sat matinee @ 2pm

£12-£14

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The play, however, contains much more food for thought and frequently shocks and surprises us.

I was unaware of the appalling treatment these pioneering women faced in their attempts to be accepted as students.

And as the story outlines, their daily personal struggle was amplified by the ongoing battle for female students to be allowed to even graduate – shockingly a right which was only won in 1948.

Too good for Cambridge

The stockings that give the play its name

The young women face a constant bombardment of abuse, belittlement and pressure to show themselves worthy.

They are notably subjected to a lecture on ‘hysteria’ and ‘the wandering womb’ by the imperious Professor Maudsley (an outstanding performance from Paul Toy) who ignores the female students, addresses the room as ‘Gentlemen’ and throws the women out when Tess (Charlotte Wood) challenges his views.

The scenes in which the Girton students debate their subjects are among the most fascinating of the play – their delight in learning and intellectual curiosity outstripping that of their complacent male peers.

We feel that they are too good for Cambridge; that this is a world not yet ready for them.

Strong cast

Travelling into a more equal future

Their personal lives, by necessity, are less interesting, with star-gazing lovers a rather tired trope, although the young actors play these scenes with charm and sensitivity.

I would have liked to have seen more of Maeve (a superbly understated and sympathetic performance by Beth Stevens).

The only working class girl of the four, her ambitions are brutally crushed by circumstance while her more privileged friends continue their studies, and it is a pity that Swale chooses not to develop her story further.

The cast is very strong overall, with notable performances from Sophie Buckley (a sincere, utterly believable Miss Blake), comic genius Matthew Dangerfield as Edwards and Mike Hickman as the conflicted, principled Mr Banks.

The male students are caddish but three-dimensional

The four leads carry the bulk of the play (Kosi Carter, Amelia Twiddle, Wood and Stevens), while the caddish male students are always three-dimensional (Thomas Barry, Finn Ella, Matt Pattison and Dangerfield)

Stunning lights

The set design is simple but effective, enhanced by stunning lighting design, which skilfully and fluidly evokes each scene from the candlelight of a university library to the dappled silhouettes of trees in a midnight orchard.

Sam McAvoy’s excellent original music is contemporary but not out of place; enhancing rather than overpowering the world of the play.

The cast of Blue Stockings

I would have liked to have heard more of it rather than the brash pre-show music hall songs which are to be fair contemporary to the 1890s, but I felt detracted rather than complemented the themes of the play.

Blue Stockings is a rather unbalanced play, but YSCP’s production is thought provoking, nuanced and full of excellent performances.

Smales has made a bold choice and it has paid off – a thought provoking evening which generated much post-show discussion and reflection on how far we have come and how far we have still to go, to achieve equality.