Friday, 19 June 2015

Theatre review: One Arm

Tennessee Williams' prolific career means that however many Streetcars get produced, there's always a wealth of lesser-known works to draw from as well. His occasional attempts to get something more controversial past the censors can mean some genuine firsts are out there, like One Arm. Written as a screenplay but too explicit to get produced in the 1970s, it's been combined by Moisés Kaufman with the short story on the same subject to create this stage version. It's told in flashback from the prison cell of Ollie Olsen (Tom Varey,) who's on Death Row. No pardon seems likely but ever since his face appeared in the papers, letters of support have been flooding in from across the USA. A former Navy boxing champion, Ollie found work hard to come by after losing his right arm in a car crash. But his good looks weren't affected in any other way, meaning he was still much in demand for other reasons.

So, following an encounter in a park, Ollie becomes a sought-after rent boy in New Orleans, later moving around the country and eventually ending up in New York.

Although playing in the smaller space at Southwark Playhouse, Josh Seymour's production still finds room to keep most of the action at something of a physical distance from the audience, mirroring the emotional distance Ollie keeps from his clients. Varey makes for an intense lead, charming and vulnerable but with an unpredictable aggressive streak that sometimes sparks into life - the production leaves a question mark over whether the occasional bursts of violence that flash for a few seconds are in his imagination, or whether he's actually leaving a trail of bodies across North America (it's never made explicit precisely whose death landed him on Death Row, although it's heavily hinted at.)

Varey is backed up by a cast of four playing dozens of roles between them - Joe Jameson continues to show great versatility as everything for a queeny pimp to a confused divinity student irresistibly drawn to Ollie in jail. Peter Hannah is a number of the more abrasive characters Ollie encounters, James Tucker older men ranging from the heartbreaking to the sinister, and Georgia Kerr's roles include a nurse who's not put off by Ollie's body, but what he does for a living is a different matter.

And this is quite an interesting aspect of how One Arm deals with Ollie's disability: He comes to define himself by it, not because of any prejudice he experiences, but because it actually makes him more appealing as a hustler. Reduced to a fetish, he emotionally distances himself. The play's moving redemption story sees the letters he receives in jail make him realise he meant more to people than that, and find a sense of worth near the end of his life that he lost for most of it.

One Arm by Tennessee Williams, adapted by Moisés Kaufman, is booking until the 4th of July at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

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