Brighton Fringe 2010
‘At the age of 10, for want of anything more meaningful to do, I put my arm above my head and kept it there. Now, thirty years on, I’m so full of meaning it’s killing me.’
My Arm is performed by the highly acclaimed actor Tim Crouch, an extremely engaging and entertaining story teller. From the outset he puts the audience at ease, even as he relieves them of treasured possessions and photographs to use during the play.
The story at first seems ordinary – barely worthy of a play really – the tale of a young boy’s upbringing on the Isle of Wight in the 70’s, competing with his brother as to who could hold their breath the longest, pee for the longest, not pee for the longest – usual kids stuff. It’s easy to believe that this is a play about Crouch’s own childhood – he looks about the right age, and it’s far from unusual for solo shows to contain autobiographical elements.
Using found objects from the audience Crouch casts the characters in his story – his mother becomes a yellow pipe, his brother a guide book to Kenya. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to what he chooses to represent people, but the device is a nice touch which involves the audience in a subtle way. The main character is portrayed by an action man figure who sits on a table, filmed by a small camera linked to an onstage TV, so the audience can see what’s going on when Crouch manipulates the doll and the other objects.
It is not long before the story becomes more interesting – we hear how one day this boy, whose name we never learn, decided ‘for want of anything better to do’ to put his arm above his head. The next day he experiments with keeping it there, passing through the pain barrier until it becomes numb, and fobbing off his parents enquiries. Two years later the arm is still up – the boy has seen a stream of psychiatrists and endured abuse, but now the arm being raised is so much part of him it is inconceivable for him to lower it. It is at this point that I started to wonder whether the story actually was autobiographical – surely the performer in front of me would have some latent deformity, but I could see none on Crouch’s body.
It is testament to Crouch’s marvellous storytelling gift that he made this tale seem so believable. His understated performance suggested truth and sincerity, underpinned by emotion which never suggested that he was ‘acting’, merely recounting the sad and baffling story of his life.
The latter part of the play placed the performance in context – the audience in the Basement, Brighton were cast as people attending a talk in New York, given by the man ‘with the arm’ who had become a medical oddity, a modern day freak-show and a walking work of art. The play becomes a comment and reflection on the ridiculousness of modern art – this social outcast is swept up into the self-congratulatory world of the London and New York art scene where he is the subject of exhibitions and paintings. A chilling exploration of the ghoulish fascination our society has with deformity and a look at the human being behind it.
My Arm is a very humorous play, the audience laughed throughout; but at the same time it is a sad play, full of pathos. It is story of a man’s health and life willfully ruined by an empty gesture made at age 10 which he was too stubborn or curious to retract.
Crouch is appearing in the Brighton Festival in May with his production of ‘I, Malvolio’