Writer: Ben Brown
Director: Mark Stratton
Producer: Sheila Carter
Set/Lighting: Graham Kirk
Costumes: Christine Wall
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
As well as being (according to at least one poll) the most popular English poet of his generation, Philip Larkin was an enigmatic and somewhat controversial figure. His poetry suggested that his was a withdrawn existence, sexually deprived, terrified of death. After his death in 1985 biographies and collections of his letters revealed his taste for pornography, long-standing sexual involvement with several women and – for a time shaking the affection in which he was held by the British public – some apparently racist and misogynistic opinions. The publication of the girls’ school stories he wrote in his youth didn’t help matters either.
So which Philip Larkin did Ben Brown choose to write about in a play first staged at Scarborough in 1999? The title hints at the sort of smutty schoolboy play on words that Larkin probably delighted in and the play begins with him finding obscene variants on Iris Murdoch books with his long-time lover Monica Jones and then chatting on the phone to fellow-poet Robert Conquest about the pack of soft porn magazines he has just received.
However, we are not on a path towards nudge-nudge-wink-wink revelations about Larkin. Brown is merely establishing that humour and humanity, rather than solemnity, will be the order of the day and Larkin with Women is no more prurient than it is reverent.
The play covers Larkin’s 30 years as Chief Librarian at Hull University and his relationships with three women, sometimes consecutively, more often concurrently. His relationship with Monica Jones, lecturer in English at Leicester University, is well established at the start, but Larkin, ever-fearful of commitment, keeps her at a distance, to visit and to holiday with. He soon becomes involved with library assistant Maeve Brennan, initially tutoring her for examinations, and, as the years pass, Betty Mackereth, his secretary, becomes the third of Larkin’s women. They are all aware of each other, but in the play almost never appear on stage together; Larkin with Women reflects the poet’s ability to compartmentalise his life.
Esk Valley Theatre again brings theatre of real quality to a North Yorkshire village for three weeks in August. Mark Stratton’s direction is clear, unfussy, understated. Even on a small stage without wings Graham Kirk’s set neatly distinguishes cluttered living room from austere office. The music between the short scenes is cleverly chosen and would have delighted Larkin: Louis Armstrong’s I Can’t Give You Anything But Love is a constant reminder of the word he finds most difficult.
Jonathan Pembroke makes no attempt at impersonation; Larkin’s famously bald dome makes no appearance. He establishes the humour of the piece early on – should Philip Larkin remind one quite so much of the likes of Cary Grant in a screwball comedy? – and gradually, subtly, builds in the humanity. The latter part of the play, not just the final death scene, is surprisingly moving.
Isla Carter’s stylish and witty Monica, frustrated in her wish to move to Hull, Hayley Doherty’s achingly sincere Maeve, tormented by her Catholic faith and Larkin’s refusal to countenance marriage, and Georgina Sutton’s acidly affectionate Betty, taking her turn with knowing good humour, are nicely contrasted and well matched in their devotion to the poet who reckons he got it all wrong when he wrote, “What will survive of us is love.”
Runs until 2 September 2017 | Image: Tony Bartholomew