DramaLondonReview

Larkin with Women – Old Red Lion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Ben Brown

Directors: John Gilbert and Jenny Hobson

In his life time, the poet Philip Larkin portrayed himself as an unsociable curmudgeon with a failed romantic life, dourly insisting in ‘Annus Mirabilus,’ ‘Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen-sixty-three/ (Which was rather late for me).’ After his death in 1985, facts emerged of his affairs, particularly with the three women he sometimes saw simultaneously. Ben Brown’s 1999 play, Larkin with Women, capitalised on the literary world’s newly piqued interest. Revived this year at the Old Red Lion to coincide with the centenary of Larkin’s birth, how well does the play stand up?

Not very well is the honest answer. For a start it’s a very conventional piece of theatre, tracking Larkin’s relationship with these women from 1956 to his death. Each of the short scenes begins and ends with a character entering or exiting through one of two doors. Endlessly repeated for the two-hour running time, the format doesn’t make for intense drama. Despite Larkin’s obsession with death, the play’s dominant note of is one of jolliness. Something of the lugubriousness of Larkin’s persona is missing. So where Daniel Wain’s gleeful expressions certainly capture the mischievousness of the poet, he tends to move straight to anger, missing the good-humoured irony that is evident in Larkin’s poetry.

By 1999 Larkin’s troubling misogynistic and racist views had been revealed through his letters. Larkin enthusiasts now wonder whether these views fatally damage his reputation. Many maintain that his sensitive articulation of the clash between romantic longing and bitter disillusion emerges directly from his deep flaws, but that his poetry is more significant than his biography.

Larkin with Women takes an indulgent view of Larkin, but there are now few fresh insights to be gained. Brown knows his subject well, but forces lines from the poetry into his dialogue, thus obscuring Larkin’s deliberate use of a persona. Larkin’s line ‘Books are a load of crap’ is delivered as a throw-away zinger, rather than a young man’s uncomfortable discovery that he can no longer identify with fictional heroes, only villains. It’s ironic, of course, the poem proving the very power of books that the speaker denies. It may be a exaggeratedly cynical version of the poet, but it is a carefully crafted one.

Monica, sensitively portrayed by Mia Skytte, is the only one of the three women who was Larkin’s intellectual equal. Scenes in which the couple rock with laughter suggest it’s not just bed which is the bedrock of their relationship. Annabel Miller in an elegant beehive hair do is his long-standing secretary, Betty, at the library in which Larkin spent most of his career. The most troubling portrayal is that of Maeve Brennan, the woman who wanted to marry Larkin, but refused to have sex with him for years because of her devout Catholic beliefs. Lynne Harrison dials up sexual allure, all fluttering eyelids, swaying hips and smouldering stares into the poet’s bespectacled eyes. Any sense that Maeve was in fact a well-educated, interesting woman is lost in this caricature of a femme fatale.

Directors John Gilbert and Jenny Hobson could afford to tighten the play’s pace, even risk some substantial cuts. The second half plods towards Larkin’s inevitable death, the mood artificially heightened by the more solemn of Larkin’s favourite music. Whether or not he declared his love for one or other of the women becomes a sentimental non-event at the end of the play.

The play has some interesting features. The set design by Junis Olmscheid is particularly effective with a nod to one of Larkin’s well-known poems in the china toad squatting on his desk. But ultimately Ben Brown’s Larkin with Women increasingly feels like a slow-paced bedroom farce.

Runs until 17 September 2022

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Slow-paced bedroom farce

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4 Comments

  1. I went to see Larkin With Women and disagree entirely with this rather jaundiced view offered by Jane Darcy. It’s an excellent play which fully deserved the standing ovation it received from a full house.
    So how well does this review by Darcy stand up? Not very well, is the honest answer. Darcy seems to have wanted Brown to have a written a different play, more in keeping with her own views.
    “It’s a very conventional piece of theatre”, she says. Well, so are many successful plays so what precisely is wrong with that? We are not told.
    “Each of the short scenes begins and ends with a character entering or exiting through one of two doors.”
    Well, yes. It’s a fact of theatre life that actors have to enter and exit the stage and in the tiny Red Lion theatre (with a wonderful set) the actors use doors (three in fact, not two, but Darcy doesn’t claim to be a mathematician). Would the reviewer have them winched onto the stage? And exit via a trap door?
    This is no bedroom farce: there is no bed-hopping or lovers hiding in wardrobes here. To label it as such it to do a grave injustice to a clever play brilliantly brought to life by the cast and the directors.
    “Despite Larkin’s obsession with death, the play’s dominant note of is one of jolliness.”
    The play contains numerous examples of Larkin obsessing about death but it also catches his well-documented – and often dark – sense of humour. And there is plenty of “good-humoured irony”.
    Ben Brown’s play does not highlight or tackle Larkin’s racist views but it is a play about the poet’s relationships with three women, all of them white. The audience can make up their own minds about whether those relationships are clouded by misogyny.
    One of the key questions posed by the play is whether it is possible to loathe the man and admire his work, but it also shows that Larkin was a complex and often contradictory individual who cannot be explained by a series of simple labels.
    “Larkin with Women takes an indulgent view of Larkin, but there are now few fresh insights to be gained.”
    It’s one thing to disagree with Brown’s presentation of Larkin; another altogether to suggest he should have written a different play.
    The reviewer should perhaps have said a little more about the acting which was of a consistently high standard – as evidenced by standing ovations every night during the run so far.
    Daniel Wain’s excellent and widely praised performance as Larkin is almost ignored. From darkly cynical to rude to angry to childish, funny and self-obsessed, he skilfully and entertainingly brings out the complexity and volatility of Larkin’s character.
    Mia Skytte’s portrayal of Monica is certainly sensitive but it is so much more and deserves more than a single adjective. Her gentle and occasionally ironic, matter-of fact manner – tough to pull off convincingly on stage – is the perfect foil to Larkin’s passion and fury
    Ditto Annabel Miller as Betty who is acknowledged by Darcy only for her “elegant beehive hair-do” with no mention of her sharp delivery, sense of humour and the brilliant timing of her replies to Larkin’s insensitivity.
    Lynne Harrison perfectly captures the different sides of Maeve Brennan. Devout Catholic, yes, but also a party girl, who loved clothes and (as confirmed in a recent interview with the real Betty, now in her 90s) calculating in her determination to win and, she hopes, marry Larkin.
    The sexual allure, “swaying hips and smouldering stares” are also just part of her role and Harrison shows superb range as an actor in scenes where the well-educated Maeve shows her familiarity with Larkin’s work; grieves for her mother; is furious with Larkin’s betrayal and his attempt to keep her on the periphery of his public life; and, just before Larkin’s death, as an older, dignified but heartbroken women – a far cry from the young woman who worked in periodicals at the Hull university library.
    The play moves along at a compelling pace, slowing at times to highlight key and revealing scenes, with Larkin’s poetry and favourite music adding to the atmosphere and sense of foreboding.
    “Whether or not he declared his love for one or other of the women becomes a sentimental non-event at the end of the play.”
    The scene in which, just before his death, Larkin declares his love for Monica as she is leaving – just after he had been interrupted as he was about to say something to Maeve (was he about to say sorry for all the hurt?) – ends the play on a moving note.
    Larkin With Women is only the second play to perform in front of full houses at the Red Lion theatre in recent years. It is the very least this interesting and entertaining production deserves. Go and see it – if you can get a ticket.

  2. I’m in complete agreement with David Wildblood’s review and thoroughly enjoyed the play. More than that, I was profoundly moved by the end and that doesn’t happen without substance of plot and character.

    Theatre is in many ways a highly personal experience and while I’m no expert on Larkin, I found it engaging and thought-provoking. It’s also a joy to escape from today’s world and take a trip to another time.

    Definitely recommend grabbing a ticket!

  3. Hmmmm I do think this review is a little unjust.

    The comment of “slow paced bedroom farce” is actually ridiculous and incorrect.

    The play flows well with real attention to detail displayed in every short but bittersweet scene. The actors were well cast and all did an excellent job… sometimes only a meter from the audience.

    My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I am cross that people may avoid seeing the show by some of the incorrect comments in the review.

    Readers: please don’t take notice of the review. I would urge you take the time and pay the ticket fee to make you own mind up, I feel you too will join in on a standing ovation at the end.

  4. A short anecdote relating to the play Larkin With Women:

    In the final scene of Ben’s play Philip Larkin says to Maeve concerning his poem AN ARUNDEL TOMB …….the trouble with that poem is I got it almost all wrong………I’ve got the hands the wrong way round. When I say left I mean right and vice versa….”

    After visiting the actual tomb in Chichester Cathedral I sent my poem DOUBLE TAKE AT ‘AN ARUNDEL TOMB’ to Philip in 1983, two years before he died, questioning the accuracy of the hands’ description. He sent me a pleasant reply.

    Our poems can be found on the internet if you Google ……Coventry Observer Philip Larkin, John Greatrex

    I’m looking forward to coming down to London to see the matinee performance on Wednesday 14th September and attend the Q+A session with Ben Brown and the cast afterwards.

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