“The loss of his arm had apparently dulled his senses”
Tennessee Williams’ One Arm started life in the 1940s as a short story, was turned into a screenplay which remained unproduced in the 1960s and now finds itself adapted into a stage play by Moisés Kaufman, receiving its UK premiere directed by Josh Seymour at the Southwark Playhouse. Champion boxer and serving in the American navy, Ollie Olsen life is turned upside down when he loses his arm in a car accident and turning to prostitution, finds himself sucked into a world of increasing darkness and ending up on death row. From his cell, he reflects on his life and the strange contours of its journey.
Kaufman is perhaps best known for The Laramie Project (which Seymour directed in Leicester in 2012) and elements of that patchwork approach remain here, as this play has snippets from the screenplay quoted directly, including scene transitions and settings, upping the metatheatricality around Ollie’s story. But as it progresses, this device loses prominence amongst an increasing sense of Ollie’s fevered dreamworld taking over, allowing Seymour to bring out more of his own theatrical vision as with the incorporation of John Ross’ movement.
With the short running time here though, such innovation feels a little too much like imposition on the storytelling. And when Williams is being as unusually and gloriously frank about homosexuality as he is here, there’s a real poignancy and power to a lead character openly embracing his new-found competence in the oldest profession and also to the array of men seeking not just sex but solace in the arms of another man, in if he’s a rent boy. Naturally these gents flick in and out of the narrative but one longs for at least some of them to linger a little while longer.
What we do have is a never-ending swirl of vivid cameos, well delineated by the company. Joe Jameson transforms dramatically from a dragged-up madam to a searching innocence as the divinity student visiting Ollie on death row, James Tucker as strong as a sleazy porn-maker as he is one of the more touching johns and Georgia Kerr’s nurse is a salty delight. And they all circle around a great performance from an excellent Tom Varey as Ollie, creating real character from what could otherwise just be a cypher – an interesting addition to the Tennessee Williams canon.