Pretending to be Me, Comedy Theatre, London

Poet's portayal a few verses off

Rhoda Koenig
Tuesday 25 February 2003 01:00

Tom Courtenay has put a lot of work, most of it to good effect, into pretending to be Philip Larkin. Standing on one leg like a nervous crane, barking his lines as if talking on a phone for the first time, he is a man unaccustomed to public speaking, who is never going to acquire the taste.

Courtenay portrays a Larkin who is in his fifties (but seems much older) on the day he moves house. Looking like the victim of a shipwreck amid his boxed possessions, he surveys the detritus of his past and tells us of his work and life.

The life – mean-spirited, remote father; whining, suicide-threatening mother; career as a librarian; difficulties with girls – sounds dismal, but the evening is full of laughter. Courtenay's achievement is to deliver a script in which joke follows joke without sounding like a stand-up comedian. Hiding his hands or letting them flap like dishcloths, he exploits the persona of The Man Who Cannot Cope. Sex is "more trouble than standing for Parliament'' and travel likewise not worth the effort. "I suppose I wouldn't mind seeing China, if I could come back the same day.''

The mannerisms are a bit overdone: was Larkin – a tall, successful man – really that twitchy? But the evident discomfort keeps us from taking the character for granted. He's like one of those unnerving relatives who suddenly, in a crowded restaurant, start talking far too loudly or fling out an arm for emphasis and deck the waiter.

In the second half, Larkin, a bottle of whisky at his side, is more relaxed and subtle. His least-favourite poet, Ted Hughes, has just been made Poet Laureate: "I think he'll do the job all right – apart from writing anything readable," he comments.

Courtenay, who has expertly contrived the show from Larkin's letters and essays, weaves the poems into the monologue, so they seem an extension of his conversation with us. The recitations retain a sense of their maker. My main reservation about the evening, sensitively directed by Ian Brown, is the impression it gives of Larkin as helpless, sexless and mild. This Larkin mocks Modernism and pretention, but the real Larkin could be scathing about those less educated than he. There is no mention of any of his several, sometimes simultaneous, lady friends.

The innocuous references to pornography could be taken as jokes, but, in fact, Larkin had a keen interest in the type he called "no holes barred". The result is a portrayal that takes the poet at his own valuation. It's a charming evening but not a very searching one.

To 24 April (020-7369 1731)

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