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Larkin With Women

by on 1 September 2022

Casanova Was a Librarian

Larkin With Women

by Ben Brown

Strut and Fret at the Old Red Lion, Islington until 17th September

Review by Louis Mazzini  

The poet Philip Arthur Larkin was born in 1922 and to celebrate his centenary the Old Red Lion presents a revival of Ben Brown’s Larkin with Women, first seen in 1999 when it won the Theatrical Management Association’s Award for Best New Play. 

Covering the last thirty years of his life, this sublime and very funny play begins as Larkin becomes the Librarian at Hull University.  Larkin was a nexus of contradictions.  In his thirties, he maintained an addiction for “top shelf” magazines and he was still swapping self-penned fiction about corporal punishment at girls’ schools with his Oxford friends.  Yet, and perhaps more effectively than any of the other modern poets, Larkin wrote insightfully about the truth of love.  And while he could be self-obsessed and fearful of commitment, he remained committed – in his way – for decades to those who loved him and whom in return he loved. 

As Larkin, Daniel Wain is utterly convincing.  Like Oliver Ford Davies, who originated the role, Wain eschews impersonation, focusing instead on the inner man and giving a compelling and unsentimental portrayal, without striving for the audience’s understanding or sympathy.  In recordings that play between scenes, Wain captures the stark and fluid beauty of Larkin’s verse while, as the years pass on stage, he ages subtly and convincingly, his voice becoming gravelled with nicotine as he moves inexorably towards “the sure extinction that we travel to”. 

Overcoming the only weakness with the script – as foreshadowed by the title – the actors playing the three “women” manage to bring their characters to life and convince that they have an existence outside their relationship with Larkin.  As Monica Jones, the enigmatic lecturer with whom Larkin maintained a relationship for almost forty years, Mia Skytte is superb, not so much “the less deceived” as not deceived at all.  Skytte brings vividly to life a passionate, complex and ambiguous woman who was Larkin’s intellectual equal yet was obsessively and almost masochistically forgiving in her love for him, writing him thousands of letters and returning his deceit with devotion. 

Lynne Harrison plays Maeve Brennan, a member of the staff at Hull who knew Larkin for almost as long as Jones.  Brennan had been her school’s head girl, which must have delighted Larkin as the author of Trouble at Willow Gables and his other juvenile fantasies.  Though her accent is a little shaky, Harrison is delightful, heart-breakingly torn between her passion for Larkin and the abstinence dictated by her faith. 

The third of the “women” is Larkin’s secretary, Betty Mackereth.  Mackereth became Larkin’s lover “at the end of a party”, after working with him for almost twenty years.  Theirs then was a very different relationship to the enduring love he knew with Jones and Brennan, yet it was Mackereth that Larkin trusted most and after his death, as he had requested, she destroyed his diaries.  As Mackereth, Annabel Miller is a magnetic blend of vivacity and brisk efficiency.

Directed by John Gilbert, this is a very strong production of this exceptional play, which culminates in with a beautifully judged final scene that ends with an appropriately “sharp and tender” gesture, echoing one of Larkin’s most famous poems.

“What will survive of us is love”.  Indeed.

Highly recommended.

Louis Mazzini, August 2022

Photography by Marc Brenner

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From → Drama, Strut and Fret

  1. Gavan Bracks permalink

    We saw Ben Brown’s play, Larkin With Women, when it was performed in Sydney many years ago. It was highly amusing and entertaining and is a must to see..

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