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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Larkin With Women
Orange Tree Theatre Spring 2006

The poet Philip Larkin (the one whose single most famous line is about what your mom and dad do to you) earned his bread as a university librarian in the northern city of Hull, a backwater he rather enjoyed because it kept him out of the limelight.

Despite being an unassuming and generally gloomy man, he managed to maintain three mistresses simultaneously over a period of decades, each of them knowing of the others and apparently content with her share of him.

That odd arrangement is the subject of Ben Brown's 1999 play, which presents the situation and the characters without ever managing to explain any of them.

Oh, we do get a sense of what was in it for Larkin, who is characterised as totally selfish in an almost innocently childish immediate-gratification way. But the play, and Alan Strachan's direction, offer no hint of what the women saw in him.

Brown's Larkin is not a particularly nice man. His favourite hobby, aside from drinking and women, appears to be being gloomy. He can find any occasion for depression - Christmas, 4:00 AM, Sunday teatime, the departure of one of his women, or the arrival of one of his women. As he admits, he could moan for England in the Olympics.

He is also habitually if unconsciously cruel, disinviting one from a party because he doesn't want to be seen in public with her, asking the second to remind him to tell the third he loves her, and so on.

He isn't particularly sexy - one of his women was a devout Catholic who took fifteen years to seduce, and another was his secretary who finally fell into his bed after two decades of platonic intimacy. Nor does he have the glamour of the Great Artist, as the play watches the years in which his powers waned and he gave up writing.

So the play just shows us the facts - these three women found something in him to hold them - without offering any explanations. The actresses - Carolyn Backhouse as his more-or-less official mistress, Jacqueline King as the secretary, Amanda Royle as the Catholic - each present interesting and almost fully rounded characterisations, with that one element totally missing.

Oliver Ford Davies is always fun to watch, one of those actors who makes you aware that there's somebody home inside, that his character has an intelligence and is thinking - though in this case it is difficult to tell what he is thinking about.

As director, Alan Strachan doesn't seem to have helped any of them much. Nor has he conquered some of the basic mechanical challenges of the play and theatre. The Orange Tree is in-the-round, and of all the plays I've seen there, this one had actors' backs to me more often than any other. And, though the play covers thirty years, no attempt beyond the midway-through addition of Larkin's hearing aid is made to age the characters or show the passage of time.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Larkin With Women - Orange Tree 2006