One Arm

Tennessee Williams, adapted for the stage by Moisés Kaufman
Alex Turner Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Tom Varey (Ollie Olsen) Credit: Alex Brenner
James Tucker as The Yachtsman, Tom Varey as Ollie Olsen and Georgia Kerr as Lila Credit: Alex Brenner
Tom Varey as Ollie Olsen and Georgia Kerr Credit: Alex Brenner

One Arm started out as a short story written by Tennessee Williams in 1945. At some later date, it was re-written as a screenplay before Moisés Kaufman created a stage adaptation, which was produced in New York in 2011 and now sees its UK première in Southwark Playhouse’s Little Theatre.

Director Josh Seymour has a great eye and vision, turning the piece into a filmic delight using a simple staging by Alistair Turner, invigorated by magnificent lighting courtesy of Joshua Pharo.

The sad tale that they illuminate is told from the perspective of Death Row. There rages one-armed Ollie Olsen, the former Light-Heavyweight Champion of the Pacific Fleet.

For 80 minutes, using a combination of voice-overs and depictions of fleeting meetings with a wide variety of generally disreputable characters, the history of the soon to be electrocuted farm boy from Arkansas is played out.

Tom Varey holds centre stage as the unhappy murderer whose life was wrecked when a couple of navy pals went on a drunken joyride from which they and Ollie's right arm never returned.

Thereafter, the young Apollo was left to fend for himself starting out in New Orleans where he soon gravitated to the degradation of life as a male prostitute in the Vieux Carré or French Quarter.

The company that Ollie is obliged to keep is hardly savoury, though amongst the low lives he somehow comes across Georgia Kerr as an innocent nurse and, eventually, a troubled seminarian played by Joe Jameson.

Most significantly, he meets Peter Hannah’s Sean, a writer who must surely be the incarnation of Williams himself. This inevitably makes one wonder whether the writer actually met a one-armed boxer-turned prostitute, who helpfully provided source material for this multi-media work.

Eventually, after a stream of seedy encounters, the behaviour of a heartless pornographer portrayed by James Tucker proves an unlikely and fatal last straw, without which there would be no play.

Through 80 minutes, Tennessee Williams paints a vivid portrait of a doomed man from the days of youthful hope to ultimate resignation, hope offered not by belief but the letters received from old tricks across the country, all of whom seem to love the lost soul when it is too late to make a difference.

Josh Seymour’s atmospheric production makes the most of a relatively slight but poignant story and he is well served by a versatile cast, all of whom bar Tom Varey play multiple roles.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher