'Larkin With Women' by Ben Brown
Directed by: Richard Parish
Design by: David Hemsley-Brown
Lighting by: Nigel Greenaway
Sound by: Alex Lyon
Cast: David Webb, Karen Brooks, Caroline Dooley and Polly King
For a direct link to the GALLERY of PHOTOGRAPHS of this production CLICK - : Larkin With Women
‘Funny generous and touching, a portrait that honours both the man and his work.’ (Daily Telegraph)
‘A lovely play, as tender and funny as it is non-judgmental.’ (Daily Express)
In 1956, when Philip Larkin was appointed Librarian at Hull University, he was close to becoming one of the finest and best-loved poets in post-war Britain. However, contrary to outward appearances, this shy, bespectacled jazz lover was leading a very complicated love life. Over the next thirty years he was involved in simultaneous relationships with three very different women – bohemian academic Monica, innocent and devoutly Catholic junior librarian Maeve and practical, down-to-earth secretary Betty. These tangled and hidden affairs were to dominate the rest of Larkin’s life in a web of shifting emotions. Ben Brown’s uplifting, funny and touching play – punctuated with Larkin’s own words and his much-loved jazz – explores the complex man behind the poetry.
The Cast of, Larkin With Women, David Webb (Philip Larkin), Caroline Dooley (Betty Mackereth), Polly King (Maeve Brennan) and Karen Brooks (Monica Jones)
REVIEW OF 'LARKIN WITH WOMEN' BY JEFF THOMSON
Philip Larkin, intellect, wit and poet did not present an image of a charismatic lover – but he was; along with his paunch, his NHS glasses, whisky and habitual smoking, he possessed an aura that some women found beguiling. Playwright Ben Brown begins to pin him down in ‘Larkin with Women’ but inevitably Philip Larkin’s aura is distanced from us by passing years and a collection of retrospective impressions – some harsh. Former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion included among his comments that Larkin was ‘a porn loving misogynist’ but others have been less outspoken. Written in 1999 Ben Brown’s play enjoyed a flurry of interest for several years and I saw it 3 or 4 times on the London Fringe as each company attempted to ‘capture the essential Larkin’. These included a wheezing chain smoker who stumbled round a room with nicotine stained fingers clenched to a tumbler that was rarely empty; Larkin died, one could add inevitably, from cancer of the oesophagus. Without the immediate presence of the man, the obsession women had for Larkin adds to his enigma – he was a probable pervert with a priapic tendencies. Ben Brown doesn’t ignore this but is alert to possible alarms – and softens the impact - by adding shards of Larkin’s acidic wit and humour. Here David Webb, as Larkin, scores full marks for a well timed delivery; “At the Ilkley Festival” says Larkin, “a woman shrieked and vomited during a Ted Hughes reading. I must say I never felt like shrieking!” Webb’s timing was impeccable as was his dead-pan face that seemed to emphasise a dry form of intellectual roughage, but his Larkin was more domesticated than degenerate, more homely than ‘bad, mad or dangerous to know.’ And perhaps Larkin wasn’t any of these. He had sustained affairs with three independent women which suggests at least a measure of domesticity to me – Monica, a university lecturer: Maeve, a library assistant and Betty his secretary. Monica and Maeve shared Larkin for 18 years but never met until after his death. Maeve worked alongside Betty for 30 years but did not discover Betty’s relationship with him until much later; at one point Larkin was juggling all three simultaneously. Polly King brought tenderness to Maeve and a visual thought process that allowed us to absorb her emotions. Karen Brooks, playing Monica, effectively contrasted this with an assertion that dissolved into contained frustration as the years passed. Caroline Dooley, as Betty, Larkin’s secretary who was ultimately seduced over (or was it under?) a typewriter, offered a compelling performance too. Brisk and orderly, the realisation of her seduction brought a sudden gasp of understanding that Larkin indeed possessed an unbridled libido. Her progress from employee to secret lover was skilfully etched and a joy to watch. As is routine with Lighted Fool’s stage design, David Hemsley-Brown devised an atmospheric Setting. Well paced by Director Richard Parish I found ‘Larkin re-visited’ an absorbing occasion enhanced by jazz interludes that emphasised Philip Larkin had wide ranging tastes indeed.
REVIEW OF 'LARKIN WITH WOMEN' BY ROGER MOODY
Philip Larkin was a man of considerable stamina. Poet, author, jazz lover and critic, librarian - and lover! Not one lover, mind you, but three - simultaneously! One wonders if it was only his parents who caused him so much angst!
All of which, of course, was splendid fodder for Ben Brown's play "Larkin With Women" first performed in 2000 and winner, that year, of the then Theatrical Management Association's Best New Play
What the man himself, who died 15 years before his love life was exposed to theatre audiences, would have made of it probably doesn't bear thinking about! The very least might have been a terse verse or three!
And so from Scarborough, where Brown's play was premiered all those years ago, to Walton-on-Thames in 2013 and The Lighted Fools Theatre Company's latest production at the Riverhouse Arts Centre.
If there is one fault with the play itself it is the very "bitty" scenes, certainly during the first half. Set variously in Larkin's flat in Hull, his house in Hull, the university library in Hull, a hospital room (probably in Hull as well - we are never quite sure) and one of his lover's cottages in Northumberland, Brown's play whisks the audience on a roller coaster of scene changes.
All of which means not only extraordinary acting but technical excellence as well. So, first bouquets go, then, to director Richard Parish's stage crew for faultless, and seamless, transitions through those countless changes of scene. A thoroughly professional performance from the stage management team - and the actors themselves - whisking us through Hull and beyond with subtle lighting, sure-footed furniture and "prop" changes and all set to the sound of jazz, a timely reminder of quite possibly Larkin's "fourth" love!
The first three were thoughtfully played by Karen Brooks as the intellectual Monica Jones who knew of the other two lovers; Caroline Dooley as Larkin's secretary at the library, Betty Mackereth, who also knew of her boss's mistresses and Polly King as Larkin's library assistant Maeve Brennan who knew of the intellectual competition but not, until after the amorous Philip's death, of the one much closer to home! Is everyone clear?
And binding these three together, in the nicest possible way of course, was the superb David Webb, who not only acted his heart out as Larkin, but looked like him as well! If ever someone got into character, this was it.
Richard Parish doesn't like curtain calls, he says, but it would have been a nice touch, at the end of a memorable evening, for Webb's Larkin to have taken a bow, separately, with each of the ladies in his life. Well, that was what the lady in my life thought anyway who enjoyed the performance as much as I did!
COMMENTS FROM OUR AUDIENCE ON ‘LARKIN WITH WOMEN’
What a performance!
We had a super time last night a very good play and wonderfully produced
Every detail was spot on
David Webb was superb again and well supported by the girls
We could not stop talking about the play as we drove home
Another great success with what I would have thought was a pretty difficult play to produce/direct
Very difficult from a practical, stage management point of view with all those quick turn-arounds, especially in such a small space. Also, pretty tricky to present 30 years of his life with such quick turn-arounds and so many very short scenes
Another mammoth effort from David Webb - how does he learn all those lines as well as trying to get the different shades of a complex character?
David Webb was excellent as usual
I didn't laugh like a lot of the others did 'cos I found the play very, very thought provoking and absolutely relevant
Yet another roaring success - a superb evening
Not an easy play by any stretch of the imagination and the cast handled it with their usual professionalism (if there is such a word!) which meant that both my daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed it
I very much enjoyed the play and all the performances
How good the final scene was
We both found the play really moving and also quite disturbing. Thank you to the whole cast for such totally believable performances. We shall remember it as a very special play that got under our skin and will stay in our thoughts for a long time to come
I loved the costumes
Beautifully acted and involving
We thoroughly enjoyed the play this evening
David Webb was totally believable as Larkin and the play, despite its short sequences, very enjoyable
From the moment it began, 'Larkin' was totally convincing .. he looked so like him that it seemed to be him even before he spoke!
The whole play was totally absorbing
It was fascinating that the actors were so near the audience ... I admired their skill in being completely believable in whatever time or place they were portraying
We so enjoyed the play on Friday. Fantastic performances all round plus great set, lighting etc
It’s always a pleasure watching Lighted Fools in action