One Arm was initially penned by Tennessee Williams in 1942 as a short story, later in 1967 he adapted the piece into a screenplay, yet it never actually made it into production. It wasn’t in fact, until 20 years after Tennessee Williams died in 2004 that the screenplay, as we know it now was adapted for the stage by Moisés Kaufman and performed in front of an audience.
Now, this same adaption has been taken on by the very talented director Josh Seymour and is being premiered at the Southwark Playhouse in South London.
Unlike the familiar plays of Tennessee Williams, One Arm openly addresses the world of homosexuality in a frank and uncensored heartfelt portrayal. This may have been why the screenplay was never made. In 1940s America, this underworld behaviour was not idealised, nor seen as a thing to be celebrated or discussed. The hustlers, although prominent on street corners, were not talked about in civil society.
One Arm is set in 1940s New Orleans. Maybe it is incidental that Tennessee penned the production a year after he himself had been arrested during frequent raids in gay bars in New Orleans.
Southwark Playhouse has an aim to facilitate the work of new and emerging theatre practitioners, and last night I was fortunate enough to see this fabulous piece of theatre. The theatre space is a small black box theatre, with a thrust stage set up. The set is minimal and relies heavily on lighting and sound effects to move the piece on.
On the stage is a large mirror, which reflects the audience at all times. Maybe this has been designed to show that society is always watching and judging what they see, rather like being a critic in a theatre.
We join the action in the bird cage, solitary confinement where Ollie Olsen is serving out his last few days on death row. He has been sentenced to death by the electric chair. As the play unfolds we witness, through a series of flashbacks, the incidents that took Lightweight Boxing Champion of the Pacific Fleet, Ollie Olsen, to be One Arm Ollie moments from his death.
The piece is an emotional roller-coaster, I haven’t been moved to tears in the theatre for quite some time, nor have I felt emotion, fear and sadness like I witnessed last night seeing this small ensemble cast of five superbly portray the adult life of Ollie Olsen.
The cast are amazing, with each actor playing multiple roles, with the exception of Tom Varey who plays Ollie Olsen. For me the stand out performances were from Tom Varey (Ollie Olsen) and Joe Jameson (various including Cherry and the seminary student) although I must praise all performers.
Tom has a difficult task in that he has only one arm through the majority of the production, but not only does he have a physical disability, he is also wrestling with his conscience throughout. Tom manages to bring life to the character so we see a three dimensional man who does what he has to survive. He is not a victim, he is a survivor. Tom is a hugely talented performer who made me laugh out loud and brought me to tears in the final scenes.
The play covers many themes, including sex, religion, innocence and youth. Tennesse, in 1940s America has crafted a play that focuses on the human race’s morbid obsession with mutilation, power, subversion, sex and religion. He addresses prostitution, the oldest profession in the world, in a way that is more honest and real than the 1990s Diary of a Call Girl and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Gray. We see Tennesse pre-date the adult film Crash, with a very disturbing scene showing the making of a seedy porn movie, where the woman is asked to the lick the point of mutilation as a sexual turn on.
There are many exquisite scenes in the piece, including a masterful set change where the characters tango with the furniture, as well as a poignant scene where one of Joe Jameson’s many character incarnations baptises Ollie Olsen into the underworld of prostitution, drugs and liquor. Ollie Olsen’s nick name, Lightning in Leather, soon takes a new meaning from being the former boxing champion to the leather worn by the hustler. There are also some fantastic scenes between The Guard (Peter Hannah) and Ollie Olsen. The scene between The old Man (JamesTucker) and Ollie Olsen in his penthouse apartment is also very amusing, yet touching.
To be honest, there wasn’t one second of this production that bored me, or let my mind wonder.
It’s not often that I come away from a piece praising the director for putting together a 5-star cast, together with a striking set design, powerful lighting and harrowing music. But, as I left the theatre last night I made a note to check out all future work of Josh Seymour.
Here’s hoping that this piece gets a transfer. The last couple of times I came away from the theatre this moved were after watching 1984 at the Almedia, and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the National Theatre.
Review by Faye Stockley
The UK première of ONE ARM
by Tennessee Williams
adapted for the stage by Moisés Kaufman
Southwark Playhouse – The Little
Joe Jameson (The Divinity Student)
Georgia Kerr (The Girl in the French Quarter)
Peter Hannah (The Guard)
James Tucker (Lester)
Tom Varey (Ollie Olsen)
The company members play multiple roles around the central character of Ollie Olsen – characters weaving through the complex tapestry of his life.
Exterior. New Orleans. Night. Close up: A beautiful young hustler solicits trade on the streets. He is Ollie Olsen, former light heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet.
After a devastating accident ends his boxing career Ollie believes his once-invincible body to be irreparably broken. When his eyes are opened to the market value of his tragic beauty, Ollie turns to selling his final asset in order to survive. Through his encounters with the lonely souls of 1940s America, Ollie discovers an unexpected chance for redemption.
In 1942 Tennessee Williams wrote One Arm, a short story with a striking central character who haunted his imagination for the rest of his life. Williams revisited Ollie’s story 25 years later in a screenplay of the same title – a script too provocative for the studios of 60s Hollywood. Moisés Kaufman, creator of The Laramie Project, fuses these texts into a powerful theatrical work inspired by the movie that was never made, now receiving its UK première at Southwark Playhouse.
Director: Josh Seymour
Set and Costume Designer: Alistair Turner
Lighting Designer: Joshua Pharo
Sound Designer: Helen Atkinson
Movement: John Ross
Saturday 13th June 2015