Oliver Ford Davies
Philip Larkin was not a particularly nice man, most people would agree on that. A solitary, depressed individual by nature, his poetry was often highly cynical and dark in tone. But in the Orange Tree’s new production of Ben Brown’s 1999 play a rather different person emerges.
This is mainly down to a fantastic lead performance from Oliver Ford Davies. As Larkin, he is very charismatic and energetic too, leaping around the stage, dancing, fighting and seducing his women, a greater contrast to the quiet professor he played in the theatre’s previous production of JB Priestley’s The Linden Tree it is hard to imagine. Once again he is mesmerizing to watch and, as an audience member, he entices you into completely trusting him; there are very few actors who can do this.
When we first ecounter Larkin he is working on his famous poem An Arundel Tomb, although he is soon distracted by girlfriend Monica, played with great energy by Carolyn Backhouse. Brown gradually reveals that, in many ways, Monica is Larkin’s perfect match: articulate, intellectual, sexually free and optimistic.
Despite this, Larkin is also fascinated by the quiet, prim Maeve, played here by Amanda Royle, who he later admits inspired many of the poems in Whitsun Weddings, his most famous collection. A staunch Catholic, Maeve does not believe in sex before marriage; in a lesser play this might have been the catalyst for a slide into bedroom farce, however Brown uses this predicament to further examine Larkin’s nature.
Larkin wanted sex and the company of women, but very much on his terms; he wanted their complete devotion, but not to live with them, marry them or – God forbid – have children with them.
Perhaps this was why his relationship with Betty, played by Jacqueline King, was so successful. She was his secretary at the University Library where he worked, and with her he could indulge in sex without having the pressure of an intimate relationship.
Directed by Alan Strachan (whose greatly enjoyable Glorious! is still playing in the West End), Larkin With Women is an oddly structured play; a string of loosely connected scenes following one after another with no real narrative thrust. Furthermore the audience has very little sense of the time-frame; characters suddenly seem to age dramatically, years of Larkin’s life slip past.
The events depicted take place between 1956 and 1985 and the audience eventually understands that things must be taking place more or less in chronological order, but you are initially left very much adrift. Instead, what does happen is that each scene gradually adds to your knowledge of the man and the women in his life; Brown has opted for a kind of layering effect which requires patience on the part of the audience but is rewarding.
The results make for an enjoyable – and often very funny – portrait of a man who found life difficult and the thought of death terrifying. However it is Ford Davies’ performance that elevates it into something truly unmissable.