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Paprichoo is a new feminist theatre company that has been set up by students at the University of Edinburgh. Their play “Number, Please” is written by Becca Chadder and it is presently a fixture at the Space on North Bridge. The year is 1952, the place is apparently England, and the star is Sheila Chadwick (Georgie Rodgers), a telephone operator who finds herself fielding a call from a dying woman. She is requested to pass on a secret message for the eyes only of a spy named Charles Briand (Fergus Head). The plot will lead on from him into a phantasmagoria of international espionage capers and frantic farcicality.

It’s a mixed bag. This production has some ripe talent at its disposal, with Fergus Head, Megan Lambie, and Talia Stirling all supplying considerable comedic nous. Stirling in particular is very watchable as she flirts merrily with the audience. Her über-expressive face seems to be filled with a complex system of animatronic springs that is being doubtless controlled backstage by a room full of technicians. What I mean to say is that she is a skilful clown and a name to watch out for in future Fringes. Although madcap physical farce is traditionally the most hospitable genre for amateurs, “Number, Please” is inexorable in its delivery and it possesses a control and an eye for detail that take it beyond the standards of a normal amateur excursion.

So why doesn’t it work a lot better? The trouble is that “Number, Please” is not really, in its heart of hearts, a play. It resembles a session with the Bedlam Improverts that has been somehow frozen in a play format. The concept of a 1950s telephone exchange is probably more horrifying than blackface minstrelsy to a modern, smartphone-wielding audience, but the story is never really interested in opening up this unknown world and exploring it. The play has equally nothing new to say about its other chosen theme of 1950s nuclear confrontation.

The cast are clearly very delighted with themselves and each other, which inevitably excludes and alienates the audience. The audience tonight are sharply divided: there are gales of sycophantic laughter from friends of the cast, or from people who have been networked into coming here; whilst other audience members sit gloomy and unresponsive. The sticking point is that there is nothing much within “Number, Please” to be laughed at. The play is always deliberately tripping over its own feet, in alluding knowingly to its own status as a play and commenting all the while on how charmingly ridiculous it is. This is altogether too affectionate and there has to be a butt for the humour, a straight man or a cuckold or somebody who is actually planted inside the story as a target and a victim.

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