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