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Review: Tabarnak (Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh Festival)

Cirque Alfonse return to the Edinburgh Fringe with their new piece

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
© Audric Gagnon

The French Canadian "tabarnak", which gives this show its title, has an intriguing etymology – though a reference to scripture, it is now used as a curse word in Canada after centuries of anti-Catholic frustration. It's a single word with a fascinating blend of two opposing ideas – a reflection of faith and a rejection of it.

Because a large part of circus is, at its core, about belief. For audiences, some of the work on show beggars it, while for the ensemble it takes an absolute belief in one another to pull off every trick, every sequence. To take Canadian circus company Cirque Alfonse's piece as a case in point – doing Chinese pole work while your pole is balanced on someone's forehead certainly takes a huge leap of faith. It only seems right that you'd build a human steeple instead of a human tower.

For all that though, Tabarnak is incredibly irreverent. Family-led company Cirque Alfonse is known for its tom-foolery (their previous show, Barbu, having a cheeky cameo by a pet hamster) and that's very much on show here – floor work is done on rollerblades, thuribles are juggled and baptism becomes an excuse for clowning. It's all a delight to watch in an hour's show chock full of every discipline imaginable.

© Audric Gagnon

The religiosity may sometimes slip into a gimmick and the tempo may drag during the middle sections but the theme sits well in director Alain Francoeur's splendidly realised show. Church pews become stackable circus equipment and the audience (or, perhaps, congregation) is cajoled into delivering a mock church hymn, accompanied by the on-stage band who sit on a raised dais at the back of the stage. One beautiful moment of stillness sees a beam of light refracted through a stained-glass window, a wonderful touch by lighting designer Nicolas Descôteaux.

Tabarnak isn't just circus as it should be, but circus as it hasn't been. As profane as it is profound, well worth a watch in a stellar Circus Hub season by the Underbelly.

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