Larkin With Women, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Given that Philip Larkin was the poster-boy for painful solitude, many people were indignant to learn, from Andrew Motion's biography, that this "Don Juan of Hull" had three lovers and even, for several years, carried on with all of them. There's not really a contradiction, though - most men get far less sex than they want and feel they deserve; writers are just more articulate and dramatic about it. Nor is it surprising that the bald, tubby librarian was a draw for the ladies. He was clever, he was funny and he was not only a celebrity but a distinguished one. Moreover, beneath the sardonic wit was the vulnerability his lovers must have found as endearing as do the audience for Ben Brown's deft and touching play.
On its premiere in 1999, Larkin with Women received an extraordinary review from Maeve Brennan, one of the women portrayed. Brennan had to witness a representation of the moment she, a deeply religious Catholic, lost her virginity to Larkin, at the age of 46, and of the time when he put his feelings and those of his longest-standing mistress, Monica, ahead of hers. Yet she was full of praise for the play's tact and charm, and that of the players - as who cannot be?
Oliver Ford Davies and Carolyn Backhouse repeat their Larkin and Monica of that production, Amanda Royle is Maeve, and Jacqueline King is Betty, who goes to bed with him after being his secretary for 18 years.
Under the direction of Alan Strachan, they sketch in the characters with swift clarity, light but cutting. I would sooner see myself hung, drawn and quartered than be shown thrusting my head forward and snapping on a nervous, inane grin, as Royle does in the presence of her future lover, and the droop of Davies's shoulders, his braces dangling, after the unhappy deflowering speaks volumes of poetry. So does his look, not of shock or remorse but of incomprehension, when Maeve, angry and heartbroken after being insulted, denounces him and sweeps out.
The philandering, however, is kept from being distasteful by Davies's constant air of preoccupation, broken, in goatish moments, by mild cheerfulness. You can't envy someone if he doesn't seem to enjoy himself.
Death was terrifying to Larkin but also a relief - the muse of poetry had left him years earlier. With the end near, we see him, for the first time, putting a woman's wishes before his own when, prevented from telling her, "I love you," and with only a second to think, he says, with a last flash of inspiration, "I'm sorry."
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