inspired by a true story, and something of a medical mystery, from 18th century France. A young man known only as Tarrare had a constant hunger, and a bizarre digestive system that allowed him to swallow almost anything in an attempt to satisfy it. He smelled bad, never gained weight, and was a subject of fascination to surgeon Baron Percy, who tried everything he could think of to cure him but failed - the framing device is his autopsy, in which Percy is searching for a golden fork Tarrare said he swallowed and was the cause of his death - but which was never found.
Percy tells the story of how he first discovered Tarrare in a freak show and tried to get him to come to his clinic - but first the young man was enlisted by the army, who thought he would be an effective spy by swallowing and regurgitating messages.
In Sita Calvert-Ennals's production Michael Longden and Daniel Harlock sing all the parts while Tobi Poster and Aya Nakamura operate the cadaverous puppets - of which only Tarrare has eyes, adding to the sympathy for him at the heart of the show. Tarrare's eating was never something he enjoyed but an attempt to stop a constant hunger (now thought to have been hyperthyroidism,) and everything he eats is shown as causing him pain.
The show revels in grotesque comedy - Tarrare swallowing cats whole, making himself gag or being tortured by Germans until he shits out his secret message - but also turns its hideous puppets into a very human story. The Posters have built the story around the mythical golden fork, here given to Tarrare by a conjoined twin in the freak show who'd fallen in love with him, and given by him in turn to a monstrous baby he befriends in the clinic, with tragic results. It's created a story that got the audience very invested in its tragic hero's life - a lot of awws, gagps and audible concern tonight. The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is a bit of a gem, providing the comic gore the premise promises but with a surprising amount of heart on top.
The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak by Tom and Tobi Poster is booking until the 18th of February at Wilton's Music Hall; then continuing on tour to Oxford and Bath.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Barney Witts.