Southwark Playhouse’s One Arm is a piece that seems as interested in its own origins as it does about the story it is telling. The tale goes that in 1942, Tennessee Williams published a short story – One Arm – about a boxing champion who loses his arm and turns to selling himself on streets all over the US. 25 years later, Williams returned to this story, adapting it into a film script; however, Hollywood in the early 70s was not prepared to fund a film about young, male hustlers, and the script was left unproduced, until Moisés Kaufman adapted it for the stage.
As a result, the script is littered with filmic narration. A good half of the story is told through voiceovers and film directions, such as ‘fade to a street corner,,,’ or ‘Interior. An apartment. Evening’. This is a useful effect in the start, to bring us into the story’s origins and form, but after an hour of it, I felt like I had been given a masterclass in why ‘show, don’t tell’ is the mantra in making film. And this is a shame, as when the script turns to dialogue and naturalism, it is well-written, sharp, and quite often the energy fizzes between the characters, in the way only a good script can provide.
Structurally, One Arm is the classic story of a life. We meet Ollie Olson, our one-armed boxer-turned-prostitute, at the end of his story – of course, at his lowest and most tragic moment – and then proceed to find out what led him to this point. As a result, it falls victim to the curse that often strikes life stories; that is to say, ‘story’ is rather minimal, and is greatly overshadowed by showing ‘life’. As a result, we get a series of vignettes that wander through Ollie’s life, often repetitively and with little regard for narrative development. Perhaps this was intended to mirror Ollie, who is adrift throughout his story, but it leaves the show feeling a bit lost and muddled.
Unfortunately, this issue with the script bleeds into the piece as a whole. Moments of movements, such as a boxing routine early on, that could have been elegant and beautiful end up being odd moments that seem out of place. Likewise, moments of visceral angst, that could have been a powerful punch, end up feeling like an awkward yelp.
Bearing these issues in mind, the performances were solid: the ensemble multi-roles its way through the New Orleans underworld of the 30s, giving us a range of characters that certainly created a convincing world. Leading them is Tom Varey as Ollie Olsen, who throws himself into creating this strong figure fighting his way through his life. But, once again, it is the script that fails here. Ollie is a character, we are told, riddled with self-loathing and shame, forced into selling his beauty as a last resort. However, for most of his story, Ollie seems at home in this world, like he is the one holding all the cards. Therefore, when Varey gives us true angst and anger in the final act, leading to his fatal actions, we are confused, as if we have just seen Dr Jekyll turn into Mr Hyde, but never saw him drink a potion.
This confusion defines the show. We are told Ollie was a specimen defined by his boxing prowess, but this past is skirted over and has no impact. Likewise, his movement into prostitution is something that could be so visceral. Everything about this piece’s subject and story implies harsh impact, but the muddled story, and subsequent impact on interpretation, means the punches end up as gentle nudges that often miss. Which is a shame, as occasionally we get hints there is a great story itching to be told.
One Arm is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 4 July. For tickets and more information, see the Southwark Playhouse website.