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Larkin With Women

by on 18 September 2018

The Enigma of Phillip Larkin

Larkin With Women

by Ben Brown

Richmond Shakespeare Society at Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 22nd September

Review by Celia Bard

Although Ben Brown’s play Larkin with Women does not take us much closer to an understanding of Phillip Larkin’s enigmatic and often egotistical behaviour, the playwright does succeed in pulling together the many threads of Larkin’s puzzling personality, weaving them together to present a compelling dramatic overview of this fascinating poet.

Larkin Libations

Larkin is a poet frequently at odds with himself in regard to ethnic and religious beliefs, a recluse, writing often about unhappiness, and certainly his attitude to women is complex. Sustained throughout most of his life by heavy drinking and smoking, numerous liaisons with women, a passion for poetry and writing and traditional jazz, which he listened to all his life, writing about it for The Telegraph newspaper.

Admittedly in the beginning I found the episodic presentation of the play irritating, but on realising that these many intervals marked a shift in either time, setting and interactions between different characters, was more able to accept these frequent changes of scene. The accompanying music, very much in keeping with Larkin’s lifelong passion for jazz during these changes, helped enormously.

The set is naturalistic, split in two main areas, each representing a different place. Larkin’s office space attached to the University library changes very little, symbolising his stabilising role as head librarian. The other stage area is in turn his flat, Monica’s cottage, his house in Newlands Park, a hospital room. The time period is that of some thirty years, and this is conveyed by the subtle change of props and positioning of furniture and also that of costume. Larkin is always very smartly dressed, wears suits, which change in style according to the decade as does his attire when relaxing at home or in Monica’s cottage. Likewise, much thought is given to the clothes worn by his three mistresses. During the 60s period, Lynne Harrison as Maeve appears wearing hippie fashionable attire. This is very much at odds with her strict Catholic straight-laced view of sex, highlighting her inner conflict regarding her sexual entanglement with Larkin. Fiona Smith as Monica Jones is very much the free-minded liberated academic, at ease in whatever she wears whether it is sexy black stockings or comfortable tops and trousers whilst the attire of Betty Mackereth played by Cath Messum is keeping with her current interests, skirts perhaps a bit short for the library but in keeping with the period.

Unusually for the RSS the voiceovers are not always clear. This is not the case with Daniel Wain, but Fiona Smith’s voice is muffled which affects intelligibility. However, this did not detract from a worthy production, beautifully directed and wonderfully acted.

Blessed with a highly talented cast, the director, Michelle Hood exploits their talents to the full, orchestrating patterns of sound, movement, and action like the composing of a piece of music but allowing her performers freedom to explore and harmonise their own parts with intelligence and sensitivity.


Daniel Wain as Phillip Larkin lives and breathes his character, successfully conveying a wide range of emotions, sexuality, and sensibilities. Often ruthless in behaviour, sometimes kind, sometimes embarrassed, sometimes all three as for example asking Maeve to accompany him to a special poetry function but not to the reception afterwards. His apology to her on his death bed is very moving. Throughout their relationship he is keenly aware of her needs but knows he cannot give her what she so desires and that is security symbolised by marriage. Likewise, Larkin’s ardent relationship with Monica is beautifully acted by Daniel. Until her illness he keeps her at arm’s length but once she moves in with him, he does not want her to leave. On his death bed the words ‘I love you’ are finally forced from his dying lips. His emotional capitulation is poignant and deeply stirring. Larkin’s relationship with Betty is on a totally different level and again Danie Wain is able to demonstrate this through his acting. He is comfortable with her and trusts her, she comes without ‘baggage’. Throughout, Daniel’s performance is compelling.

Larkin Lecturing

The characterisations of the female actors playing Monica, Betty and Maeve are carefully delineated. Fiona Smith plays the high-minded, intellectual academic tutor with confidence and verve. She is sexy, provides him with intellectual companionship and tolerates his dalliances. Cath Messum is wonderful as Betty Mackereth supportive of him in his library work, but does not make unrealistic demands on their relationship. Lynne Harrison successfully plays the guilt-ridden, tortured character of Maeve Brennan. Of the three she comes across as the most damaged; she does not move on. All three actors give full-rounded presentations of the characters they portray – a wonderful ensemble of acting performances.

Larkin Lying

Daniel Wain in his essay ‘The Philip Larkin I never knew’ describes how as an undergraduate he came across the poet in a ‘Holiday Inn’ type bar. He writes that he never approached him …. “he was just a rather sad, crumpled old man with a Scotch.” He ends with a “wistful wish” that he’d “approached the old boy.” If he had I wonder what questions he might have asked of the poet. By then Larkin had stopped writing poetry, had turned down the opportunity of becoming Poet Laureate and was not far off from death. So many questions perhaps to ask, and I suppose that is the strength of Ben Brown’s play, his audiences leave pondering the man and perhaps wanting to read or re-read his poetry.

Celia Bard
September 2018

Photography by Sarah J Carter and Pete Messum


From → Drama, Reviews

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