Theatre: Hull hath no fury...

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The Independent Culture


DEPRIVATION IS for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth, wrote Philip Larkin. It's a claim that begins to sound a bit odd when you consider that, in his later years, the great poet was keeping three women on the go at the same time. Evidently, one man's deprivation is another man's cup running over.

Set in Hull where Larkin was the university librarian between 1956 and his death from cancer in 1985, Ben Brown's new play, Larkin With Women, views life from the perspective of the poet's difficulty with girls and their difficulties with him.

Having feared that the piece would take the fashionable politically correct line that these women were simply used by a porn-loving, Thatcher-worshipping racist who was the towering embodiment of the male refusal to "commit', I am delighted to report that Brown's shrewd and highly entertaining play refuses to simplify things in that manner.

Not that it's a whitewash. Alan Bennett once wrote that, given Larkin's dread of a life taken over by wife and children, it's a pity he didn't turn out gay, "one advantage of boys being that they are more anxious to move on than in". Alan Strachan's fine production underscores that need for deep-down detachment in Larkin - bad for the life; the basis and often the subject of the work - by ironic use of his beloved jazz music.

"In My Solitude", "I Can't You Give Anything But Love, Baby" et al swell out round the edges of scenes where we see this "Don Juan in Hull" (not my joke, alas) juggling his options and sometimes coming a cropper. Oliver Ford Davies pitches his excellent performance somewhere between the Tory pessimism of Eeyore and of Dr Johnson. In so doing, he shows you that a major attraction for at least two of these women was Larkin's lugubrious, yet oddly uplifting humour.

Carolyn Backhouse's splendid Monica - the sexily original siren-cum-bluestocking who was the important female in Larkin's life - knew exactly how to play his hard-drinking intellectual-philistine game. And certainly any woman who thinks a Sunday well spent is pornographically altering the text of Iris Murdoch's novels (so that Under The Net becomes Under the Nether Garment sounds like someone this reviewer could have done business with.

Susie Blake's loaf-haired secretary Betty, who worked under him for 20 years before working under him in other ways (`I'd have asked you sooner," he explains, "only I didn't want you to think I was TS Eliot" - the type who marries his secretary) also has a canny sense of where she stands.

The figure you fear that Larkin really did take advantage of was Naeve (Suzy Aitchison), the devout Catholic deflowered by him, against her better instincts, at the age of 46. It can't be pleasant for her to have this lopsided relationship raked up again here.

A great deal of the play is taken pretty directly from Larkin (speeches such as: "When I was a child I thought I hated everybody but now I realise it's children I don't like"). I could have done with more about his mother (the crucial female influence, after all), but I emerged admiring the skill with which Brown has shaped the material and the unpriggish angle which he has taken on it.

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