Olivia Ross (Celia), Tala Gouveia (Carolyn), Molly Logan (Maeve) and Ellie Piercy (Tess)
Olivia Ross (Celia), Tala Gouveia (Carolyn), Molly Logan (Maeve) and Ellie Piercy (Tess)
© Manuel Harlan

"Why are you here?" asks an outraged chap of a female student in Cambridge in 1896. "This is a lecture hall, not a laundry." Jessica Swale's entertaining and well organised first play shows how girls got their degrees by degrees and challenged the prevalent notion that higher education was detrimental to their physiology.

The only minor problem is that no-one could possibly be surprised by the play, or the fact that Swale has written it. It speaks for itself. Deep into the second half, one of her students declares that she wants to be a scientist. "But you're a woman!" comes the inevitable disclaimer. A story in today's newspapers shows how far we've come: men graduating from Cambridge will be allowed to wear skirts, and women to wear trousers, from October. Hooray! Another victory for common sense and the transgender libertarian equal opportunities lobby.

It is shocking, though, to flick through the Globe Theatre programme and see the photograph of a female effigy suspended on her bicycle (one leg on each side) above a crowd of straw-boatered Berties amassed in protest against the graduation of women outside the university church.

Swale's play, efficiently directed by John Dove, concentrates on a group of girls at Girton College, the first college to admit women, led by Ellie Piercy's feisty Tess Moffatt, winning the right to graduate. It tries, also, to separate this campaign from that of the suffragette movement, though clearly women's rights are the paramount issue.

Swale's tactic is to make the arguments about love and humanity, the value of the arts in society, count for the drama and there's one blistering speech by a male academic that triggers all the dutiful responses: "We're not average men here. We are the future. The leaders. The establishment… We built this country. We made this nation… Then you. You what? Waltz in, with your bonnets and your pretentions and your preposterous self-belief and think you have a right to set foot in these walls?"

The speech is discharged with horrible conviction by Tom Lawrence and rebuffed by Tala Gouveia's determined medical student with the simple allegation that she knows the human body as well as any man.

The gallery of rogues - trapped in their late Victorian period rather than brimming with misogyny - is dotted with neat, well-skewered performances by Edward Peel, Christopher Logan, Matthew Tennyson and Luke Thompson.

But alongside the girls' progress in the course of an academic year - Molly Logan and Olivia Ross play "a mystery" and "a fragile hard-worker" as Swale dubs them - we also meet women who haven't been able "to have it all," as well as the wise and considerate Mistress of Girton, Elizabeth Welsh, whom Gabrielle Lloyd plays with shrewd and heart-warming generosity of spirit. In the end, the play is, perhaps, more surprising than we bargained for.