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The Theatreguide.London Review

One Arm
Southwark Playhouse  Summer 2015 

Transferring a work from one medium to another is always risky business. Something of the original will inevitably be lost, but if you're successful something will be added to balance it. 

In the case of this stage version of an early Tennessee Williams short story, just barely enough of the flavour and power of the original survives and is enhanced by staging, but it's a close call. 

In 1943, while waiting for the first production of The Glass Menagerie to come together, Tennessee Williams had an extraordinarily fertile year, writing a dozen short stories and drafts of almost as many plays. 

Most of it went into the trunk, and twenty-five years later, with his creative faculties fading, Williams dipped back into the files to rework some of the old material, in this case turning the published short story One Arm into an unpublished and unproduced screenplay. In 2011 New York theatre director Moiss Kaufman blended the story and screenplay into this stage version. 

One Arm is the story of a handsome young athlete who, after losing an arm in an accident, becomes a street hustler, coolly accepting the love and money of older men who pick him up. 

When he suddenly and unexpectedly rediscovers a moral core and kills one of them he is sentenced to death, and in prison is inundated with letters from the hundreds of Johns who actually remember him with fondness and even reverence. 

The image of a purity retained even in the midst of depravity and capable of touching others and affecting their lives is the purest Williams, as is the special sympathy for the physically or emotionally maimed, and the one-armed man is a close cousin to Brick Pollitt and Blanche Dubois. 

The stage version opens up the story a little, borrowing bits and pieces from other Williams stories of the period, though I can't say whether that's Williams's work or Kaufman's.

It is Kaufman who rearranges the chronology, starting with his hero on death row and turning most of the action into flashbacks, a change that adds almost as much, in introducing a sense of doom from the start, as it loses in removing Williams's own more subtle foreshadowing. 

The biggest loss is in the authorial voice. Williams was a poet whose words could create a tone that infused everything – think of the opening monologue of The Glass Menagerie – and in spite of Kaufman's use of an onstage narrator, this is one case in which seeing is not as effective and evocative as being told. 

You sense the power of the writing intensifying whenever the play quotes the story directly, as in the simple but moving letters from the Johns and the prisoner's own barely literate attempts at replying. 

Josh Seymour's production is fluid and fast-moving, though most effective in its most still and quiet moments, and Tom Varey sensitively allows us to glimpse that core of some sort of purity within the damaged and dirtied character that is so central to Tennessee Williams's vision.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - One Arm - Southwark Playhouse  2015

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