Review: The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak (Wilton's Music Hall)

Food porn and puppetry in a gruesomely hilarious entertainment from Wattle and Daub

Tarrare, between mouthfuls. The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak (Wilton's Music Hall)
Tarrare, between mouthfuls. The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak (Wilton's Music Hall)
© Barney Witts

Was there ever a better title? It's as lip-smackingly enticing as the tale that bears its name, a true(ish) story from 18th-century France told through puppetry and—sort of—opera. Producers Wattle and Daub are not the first disciples to have plundered the aesthetic of Shockheaded Peter, but visually this is the best show of its kind that's appeared in its wake.

The unfortunate Tarrare was not just a compulsive eater but an extreme omnivore. The disorder from which he suffered, now known as polyphagy, condemned him to a living nightmare from which death was a blessed release. The show begins with his autopsy at the wonderfully named "Clinic for Incurable Freaks" before scrolling back through earlier (though not happier) times.

Told straight, The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak would be scarcely bearable. It's a litany of monstrosities without a trace of lightness or redemption. But in this puppetification, superbly realised by director Sita Calvert-Ennals, it's screamingly funny. Calvert-Ennals completely gets the unique ability of puppets to bend the laws of science and break the boundaries of taste, and the ghostly-gothic cast of the dolls designed by Laura Purcell-Gates (for whom Edvard Munch's The Scream seems to have been an inspiration) subverts their humanity at every turn. So we're safe to laugh and shudder without succumbing to empathetic nausea.

Yet the pathos of Tarrare's plight overrides even the grossness of his actions as he crunches on pussy cats and gulps down amputated limbs in the clinic's morgue. "I just want to be full", he wails. And he doesn't suffer alone. His fellow travellers at the freak show, the double-headed lost souls Marie and Celeste, have a story that's every bit as tragic as his own. This ultra-grotesque parade is rendered with an eerie and disarming beauty by puppeteers Aya Nakamura and the show's librettist, Tobi Poster.

When it comes to the score by Poster's brother, the distinguished pianist Tom Poster, we hit a problem. Like Marie and Celeste, it is two entities trapped in one body. By calling itself an opera, The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak seems constrained to behave itself and choke back any temptation to musical extremity. That's at odds with what everyone else is doing, and it's the show's fatal flaw.

It's all the more frustrating because there are some catchy songs in there begging for release, and at times we're not a million miles from Lloyd Webber or even, in the set piece number "I'm so hungry", Sondheim. At others, with flying leaps into falsetto by baritones Michael Longden (a classical singer) and Daniel Harlock (musical theatre), we're in the realm of The Tiger Lillies.

The show needs to decide what it is, and it should plump for being a musical. It partly defines itself as such anyway, since Tobi's witty lyrics carry equal weight to Tom's music (whereas operatic librettos serve the organic composition), and Harlock's show-tune delivery makes every word hit home. Musical theatre conventions are not inferior to opera, they're different, and this material cries out to be delivered through the unbridled vocal talents of singing actors. Poster has written stylish music, rendered eloquently by An-Ting Chang (piano) and Katy Rowe (violin), when really he ought to get his teeth into the esurient joys of showbiz. With the work in its present form he has, unlike Tarrare, bitten off less than he can chew.

Tarrare the Freak runs at Wilton's Music Hall until 18 February. It then tours to Oxford and Bath.