Review from: Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 8th August 2019
The 2pm programming slot seems like another programming mishap by the Underbelly Circus Hub. Because Kombini, a long 80 minutes of Russian clown theatre is not a children’s show. Its blurb online clearly says ‘for teenagers and adults alike’, and the performers – Rémi Jacques and Jean-Felix Bélanger, co-directors of Canadian Les Foutoukours – mention to us afterwards in conversation that they struggle with too many children in the audience because it changes the energy of the room. A Russian clown show is not intended to be full of laughs, and is a more poignant, poetic thing. Bored children expecting dynamic entertainment create a rather painful atmosphere. It doesn’t help that the premise of the story involves a children’s birthday party, but we are expected to empathise with these characters more than roll about with humour or be amazed by tricks. However, sitting in the middle of the day at one of the Fringe’s flagship children’s circus venues, it’s easy to see how the ticket buying public can be confused.
There are some lovely design elements to the show, but it’s slow, with no spectacular skills; a fleeting moment of 3 and 4 ball cascade juggling, and some fairly average acrobalance may serve the inner lives of these sad clown characters, but are not designed to grab the attention of young audiences.
The plotline revolves around two out of work clowns who unsuccessfully try to relive past glories, but eventually succeed in finding comfort in their own friendship. They wear full make-up throughout, and include a section dressed in Ronald McDonald 20th Century American-style colourful entertainment clown costumes. I’m quite upset by it, in this context. There’s a theatre truism that says you need to be a really good musician to properly send up a bad musician. Today is not a good clowning day (although the company’s impressive touring history suggests that they must have them), and the duo’s imitation seems to serve more to tarnish the already shaky reputation of children’s clowns than to generate sympathetic humour. Today, the pair are presenting rather than connecting, and I can understand the difficulty they find themselves in with an audience of children for a show that is not designed for them. At the Fringe, when 60 minute productions are the norm, the additional 20 minutes here is an extra burden. My mind and attention wander again and again, and the story that other reviewers whom I respect seem to have got so clearly doesn’t land with me. Perhaps because I don’t see the role of birthday party clown as a demeaning job.
By the time Kombini’s touching moments of happiness in red balloons and soap bubbles arrive, a number of seats have emptied. It’s hard on everyone, and I can’t help wishing I’d been able to see the show as it was intended and perhaps leave with a more positive experience.