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Tabarnak review at Underbelly’s Circus Hub, Edinburgh – ‘more pious than praiseworthy’

A scene from Tabarnak at Underbelly's Circus Hub, Edinburgh. Photo: Guillaume Morin

Tabarnak, deriving from ‘tabernacle’ (the cupboard you keep the wine and wafers in at church), is a Canadian French expletive used to add emphasis to a point. It is employed rather like the F-word but with ecclesiastical etymology.

Cirque Alfonse has a fair amount within its circus spectacular to make you exclaim “Tabarnak”, with acrobats somersaulting through the air at impressive heights from a Russian swing and Nikolas Pulka wowing on the aerial straps.

Yet, despite a stage crowded with fun looking props – from hockey sticks to roller skates – the experience has more in common with an overlong snoozy Sunday service than religious ecstasy. 

A scene from Tabarnak. Photo: Guillaume Morin

Without the massive stained-glass window hanging above, you could be forgiven for missing the church theme. It’s tenuous, with costumes that more closely resemble chef whites crossed with A Clockwork Orange and music which, although deftly performed, lacks spirit. 

Circus doesn’t automatically equal clowning – having plenty of scope for the emotive, the weepy and the sublime – but it should never be boring. Though undeniably skilled, the artists perform their acts po-faced. An accomplished routine featuring incense burners employed as poi is delivered with a deadly seriousness that excludes the audience. Even a comic skit featuring an extreme baptism lacks humour, with a seeming unwillingness to lean into the ridiculous. 

The finale of Tabarnak offers a glimpse of the ensembles’ geniality as they are joined by their children on stage. It’s frustrating – too little too late for this show that could have been seriously special if delivered with less pomp and more heart.

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Canadian French circus takes you to church but is more pious than praiseworthy