The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak

Tom and Tobi Poster
Wattle & Daub
Wilton's Music Hall

Tarrare Credit: Barney Witts
The autopsy Credit: Barney Witts
The Showman Credit: Barney Witts
The Two-headed Lady Credit: Barney Witts

Created by pianist and composer Tom Poster and his theatre-maker brother Tobi, this very original opera is based on a true story. It is quite an experience and I could wager you have never seen anything quite like it.

Monsieur Tarrare was an 18th century Frenchman who had an insatiable appetite. As a teenager he could eat his own weight in meat in just one day. His parents couldn’t afford to feed his hunger and turned him out. He would wolf down anything from snakes to cats and found a job in a freak show. He joined the Revolutionary Army and admitted to a military hospital with exhaustion became the subject of medical experiments before being used as a courier crossing enemy lines carrying messages in his gut. He got caught by the Prussians who tortured him before letting him go free.

It is a macabre tale presented here in the form of puppet performance, perhaps the only way in which it could be put on stage, by Bristol-based Wattle and Daub Figure Theatre who designed the puppets. The lyrics are largely the work of Tobi Poster, the music by Tom, though there is some overlap, with the story developed in collaboration with Hattie Naylor and Sita Calvert-Ennals as director.

That collaboration is reflected in actual performance with singers Michael Longden and Daniel Harlock on stage with Tobi Poster and Aya Nakamura and their puppets with pianist An-Ting Chang and violinist Katy Rowe mainly playing behind them but sometimes all are involved in the manipulation and musicians and puppeteers occasionally add their voices.

Both singers have an enormous range so that Harlock as Tarrare sings of his hunger as male soprano. Bass baritone Longden can also hit the high notes so there is considerable difference in the voices they give to their multiple characters from the doctor performing the autopsy at the Clinic for Incurable Freaks that frames the performance to a French Revolutionary Army commander, the flamboyant proprietor of a freak show to the two-headed lady (one of whose heads is in love with Tarrare) and Prussian soldiers.

The puppets have moveable mouths that precisely lip-sync with the singers giving an instant vivacity. Most of them have eye sockets yet their ghostlike faces (like the masks in Peter Hall’s National Theatre Oresteia) are strangely expressive. Only Tarrare is given eyes and they seem to be always in pain and pleading. The bizarre grotesquery of what is presented and the wit in the lyrics often create reason for laughter but the sheer pathos of the predicament of the protagonist soon stifles it.

The music is full of strong melodies, there is a particularly insidious tune linked to the freak show, an almost Les Miz rally for the Revolutionary Army and it moves easily between classical opera and more music theatre writing to reflect situation.

The show describes itself as “a monstrous chamber opera for puppets” and in agreeing I intend to pay it a compliment. It is always intriguing in music and presentation and surprisingly moving. Rebecca Wood’s design, with a background of glass cases displaying specimens that include its props and characters and Mark Parry’s lighting, make it lovely to look at.

At Wilton’s, it will be replaced on Thursdays by a series of concerts featuring Tom Poster and after the London performances The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak can be seen at North Wall in Oxford (8/9 March) and The Michael Tippett Centre in Bath (10 March).

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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