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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Pretending To Be Me
Comedy Theatre       Spring 2003

Tom Courtenay's solo show as poet Philip Larkin is delightfully successful as performance, somewhat less so as evocation of Larkin or celebration of his poetry.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was one of those minor poets like Stevie Smith whose mark on history is not their body of work or even one or two poems, but a single line, in his case the one about what your mom and dad do to you.

He spent most of his adult life as a librarian at the University of Hull, and Courtenay quotes him as preferring that backwater to a more central place in the literary world, since it dissuaded American academics from visiting him.

Courtenay assembled this monologue himself, from Larkin's letters and other writings, along with the recitation of about 20 poems.

In both the portrait thus created and in his performance, Courtenay seems to see Larkin as a standard-issue Harmless British Eccentric, the shy little man happy to putter around in his own garden as long as the rest of the world will leave him alone.

(He rejected official feelers toward making him Poet Laureate, happily letting the job go to his arch-rival Ted Hughes.)

So, along with hints of Larkin's stammer, Courtenay gives him the almost spastic physical awkwardness of a man far more comfortable in his own company than anyone else's.

Perhaps realistically, but unfortunately for the purposes of the evening, the actor makes this nervous clumsiness even more pronounced whenever Larkin recites a poem, so that the character's performance threatens to spill over into Joe Cocker territory.

That distracting performance choice is only a small contributor, though, to one of the evening's big disappointments, its complete failure to make Larkin's poetry seem of value.

One comes to the occasion of a talented actor reading poetry with the hope of revelation, but all Courtenay's skill and sensitivity can't make the poems come alive. There are no flashes of recognition, no breath-taking images, no moments of "Yes!"

If Larkin was a poet of importance, then Courtenay isn't able to show us that; if Courtenay is giving the best readings possible, then Larkin wasn't much of a poet.

Courtenay has selected his non-poetic material to emphasise Larkin's sly sense of humour, and there are delightful throw-away lines ranging from self-effacement to bitchy dismissals of Ted Hughes. He is also careful to give proper prominence to the poet's love and extensive knowledge of jazz music. 

On the other hand, to strengthen his characterisation as eccentric loner, Courtenay has eliminated virtually all reference to Larkin's several love affairs and his various public roles and honours.

In short, do not go to this show expecting either a satisfying discovery of the beauties of Larkin's poetry or a fully-rounded portrait of the man.

Ultimately, any solo show like this is just an excuse to spend a couple of hours in the company of a personable and attractive performer.

And, with an amiable low-key charm that recalls Alan Bennett nattering his way through one of his monologues, the ever-delightful Tom Courtenay provides that pleasure in abundance.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Pretending To Be Me - Comedy Theatre 2003

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