Monday, 22 June 2015

Interview: Tom Varey, starring in One Arm at the Southwark Playhouse

Tom Varey is currently starring as Ollie Olsen in the UK premiere of One Arm by Tennessee Williams at the Southwark Playhouse.

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.

Having graduated from RADA in 2014, Tom made his theatrical debut in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. On screen he has been seen in No Offence and The Village.

I recently spoke to Tom about how it feels to be taking on such an almighty role, why he’s feeling the pressure and what it has been like to delve into the 1940s….

What drew you to One Arm?
The script, as soon as I read it I knew One Arm was something I was interested in doing because it was so brilliant. I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been picked up before in the UK. When I met Josh (Seymour) the director and Alex (Turner) the producer they were both really passionate and it seemed like they really cared about making it a good show. I think it is a good show and I think it deserves to have that amount of passion put into it.

It’s going to be completely new to most people, but is it ‘typical’ Tennessee Williams? What can audiences expect? 
The writing is quite classic Tennessee Williams – there’s a lot of poetic, lyrical language; but being about male hustling in the 1940s, I suppose the subject and the story is quite risqué for a Tennessee Williams. It’s quite dark and is about all these repressed characters – everyone is quite lonely and searching for someone and feeling empty. I think it’s his darkest piece, certainly that I’ve read. It gives us quite an insight of his life in New Orleans and how he was feeling at that time. It’s quite sad, but there’s also a lot of humour and it’s very touching. 

Joe Jameson and Tom in rehearsals 

The 1940s was a completely different world!
Exactly, the first week of rehearsals was spent sat around the tables bringing up as much research as we could. We tried to engulf the rehearsal room as the 1940s if that makes sense – we wanted to get a real feel of the time in the rehearsal room so we stuck pictures and facts up on the walls. It definitely adds extra texture to the story. We’ve let it filter through and help us tell the story. There was obviously so must risk involved with this back in the day – in the 40s gay men lived such a repressed, lonely, sad life so it was important for us to understand just how risky and lonely a life it was.

How did you find the process of discovering Ollie Olsen? He goes through quite a journey…
Erm, well I’ve rediscovered him about ten different times since starting [laughs]. He’s quite a simple young man with simple needs and he likes the simple things in life. He’s drawn into the navy because of a want to feel like doing something for his country. I don’t think he had a particularly good upbringing, so that has driven him to wanting to be part of something bigger which drives him into the navy. I feel the boxing comes around by chance – he finds himself in this world where he’s suddenly being told he’s good enough to become a boxing champion. That happens and then he gets caught up in this world of ecstasy – not literally, emotional ecstasy. 

Then after the accident he feels like he’s lost everything. He can’t even afford to eat. Again he finds himself being picked up by somebody and being pushed into a different game altogether which he accepts because he’s numbed by the accident, but he doesn’t enjoy being a part of it – he doesn’t enjoy being a male hustler. He doesn’t feel at all satisfied. Then it’s a downwards spiral of how disgusted he feels with himself and how far the great have fallen; once he was a champion and now he’s being reduced to picking up men on the street just so he can eat… and that obviously boils down to him committing a murder and ending up on death row. He’s a passenger, people push him around. 

It’s an almighty role to take on!
I still read it to myself now and I’m like ‘can I do this?!’ [laughs] It’s huge! Because nobody will have seen it before over here I feel there’s a lot of pressure to do it justice… but I’ll give it a go [laughs].

The Little at Southwark is such a small space, do you think it complements this piece?
It’s terrifying [laughs], no, it definitely complements the play – I think it works very well in an intimate environment because you really have to invest in this character and invest in the story. I think if it was in a big theatre like the Olivier or something the story would get lost and it would just be a nice evening at the theatre, but you don’t want it to just be a nice evening at the theatre – instead you want it to be a real emotional journey, like a roller-coaster ride, and I think the intimacy helps with that. It’s a great space! I saw it for the first time when we started rehearsing and, like you said, it is very intimate – there’s nowhere to hide!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

One Arm runs at the Southwark Playhouse (The Little) until 4th July 2015.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 2: John Wilson
Photo Credit 3: Alex Brenner

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