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by on 17 August 2022



Circus Abyssinia at The Layfette, Underbelly Circus Hub, the Meadows, Edinburgh Fringe until 27th August

Review by Eleanor Marsh

Tulu Derartu is the first African woman to win an Olympic gold medal (10,000 metres).  She went on to win the World Cross-Country Championships twice and, at the age of 37 won the New York Marathon.  She is currently President of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation.  That level of achievement deserves to be celebrated and Circus Abyssinia celebrate her in style!

There is little narrative to this piece, excepting the opening of the show, which depicts a female athlete on a track running remarkably quickly around the big top to the accompaniment of what appears to be the actual commentary of the 1992 Olympic final.  Of course, she’s not completing her circuit as quickly as it appears.  It is sleight of hand on a grand scale: there are actually three “Tulus”, who all come into their own later in the piece. The audience is then taken to Africa, where the real Tulu tended cattle as she was growing up and reputedly ran at night-time – dodging the hyenas!  This part of the show contains some truly incredible contortions – and the first of many audible gasps from the audience.

And there the storyline pretty much ends.  Because this show is about the essence of the person; it is not a biography, it is a true demonstration of determination, courage, nerve, discipline, skill and self-belief.  It is also not a circus filled with sequins and sparkles and clowns.  It is something much less predictable and much more special.  Once the scene has been set the show becomes a vibrant celebration of achievement against all the odds.  It is a joy to watch.

This is obviously a very tight knit company who love what they do.  The sheer joy on the faces of the performers was infectious and this young team of acrobats, jugglers and contortionists had the audience in the palms of their heavily rosined hands.  There was dancing, hand balancing, skating, and some truly jaw-dropping acrobatics that were real “stomach in the mouth” frightening. The jugglers and acrobats all literally “play with fire” during the performance and one of the most impressive things about the piece is the genuine affection for each other that comes across.  This company is a unit.  They look out for each other during the most dangerous feats of derring-do, and they dance and summersault between acts, sharing their enthusiasm with the audience.

The skill on display here is awesome, but what is best about this superb show is that all of the danger and jeopardy is wrapped up in what is basically a children’s playground – swings, roundabouts and oversized gym mats are all there, just bigger, brighter, faster and much more dangerous than in the local park.  Even the male acrobats’ costumes make them appear to be a Sunday League football team!  What this clever device does is ensure that the show appeals to all ages without exception.  The soundtrack is powerful and fun at the same time, the cast’s enthusiasm is infectious, and I defy anyone seeing this show not to unleash their inner child.

Tulu is a wonderful hour’s entertainment.  One of the best things this year’s Fringe has to offer.  I hope that Derartu Tulu has seen it; I hope she is proud to have her name associated with such a fine piece of work.

Eleanor Marsh, August 2022

Photography by David Rubenn and Rod Penn

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