The UK premier of One Arm fuses Tennessee Williams’ short story and unproduced screenplay, adapting the narrative for the stage. This is a bleak vision of a male prostitute on death row in the early 1940s, as he looks back over his life.
The first question I always ask about these kinds of plays is – why did it take so long for the work to be performed? In this case, the explicit homosexuality of the characters and a sympathy for their lives, loneliness and exploitation would have been too controversial to be produced in Williams’ lifetime. Even today the flyer for the play notes that ‘Due to the content of this production it is recommended for those aged 14+’.
While it wonderful to see Williams write openly about sexuality in ways he later self-censored, the content of the play is not so much controversial now, as it is depressing. A boxing champion who has lost one arm, Ollie discovers a world of hustlers, Hennessy and illicit homosexuality, in which he is exploited and adored as a victim. His journey from New Orleans to New York eventually leads him to the electric chair.
Kaufman’s adaptation constantly reminds us that this piece was intended for the screen. A narrator reads the stage directions and camera angles aloud. The effect is deliberately raw and unpolished. There are other cinematic techniques scattered throughout. Ollie writes in chalk on the floor of his cell creating a birds-eye view effect. The slow-motion scenes are particularly good, especially his boxing match with thin air.
Distorted mirrors reflect Ollie’s inability to recognise himself and his feelings, which he insists he lost with his arm. In a particularly powerful moment at the end, one of these mirrors falls away to reveal … Well, I’m not going to give everything away.
The strength of the production lies in Williams’ compassion for the characters and Kaufman’s film-like adaptation. Georgia Kerr is also particularly good as a range of vulnerable, desperate characters.
However, we’re thrown into the action straight away and it takes a while to warm to Ollie (Tom Varey) and invest in his character. Varey gets better as the play goes on, delivering a moving finale, but it’s too little too late. The depressing plot and consistently miserable tone lack the dynamism and poignancy Williams demonstrates in his later works. One Arm is an interesting, candid production, but it’s also flawed, and it’s certainly no Streetcar Named Desire.