There’s been a lot of Larkin about in recent years, from Tom Courtenay’s one-man show Pretending to Be Me to the BBC’s 2003 film Love Again with Hugh Bonneville. In many ways, though, Ben Brown had the jump on all of them, his 2000 play having already surfaced to award-winning effect at the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough. Six years on Alan Strachan’s production arrives at the Orange Tree with half its original cast and all its charm intact, due in the most part to Oliver Ford Davies’ wry and touching portrayal of a Philip Larkin whose genius went hand in hand with a love life Casanova might have envied.
The notorious Venetian lothario earns a mention here; after all he, like Larkin, was a librarian whose literary output was overshadowed by his extracurricular activities. In Brown’s play, though, they are at least afforded equal significance, the poet’s on-and-off affairs with three women – lecturer Monica Jones (Carolyn Backhouse), library assistant Maeve Brennan (Amanda Royle) and his loyal secretary Betty Mackereth (Jacqueline King) – unfolding in tandem with the flowering and subsequent wilting of his creative muse.
Charting the years 1956 to 1985 in rather fragmented fashion, the play follows Larkin from grumpy middle-age to his cancer-related demise, taking a light-hearted but never salacious interest in his sexual proclivities and a secret appetite for porn that gives his office – recreated too faithfully in Sam Dowson’s over-cluttered design – the feel of a newsagent’s top shelf. Along the way Brown addresses his subject’s passion for jazz, his rivalry with Ted Hughes and his love-hate relationship with the “revoltingly fishy” Hull. For the most part, though, the focus is on the women of the title and their ability to bring out a different aspect in the man they all loved, often in spite of themselves.
From lusty ardour to paternal protectiveness to a cavalier disregard that borders on the frosty, Ford Davies’ Larkin changes mercurially depending on who is sharing his bed, booze and macaroni cheese. It’s a tribute to the actor – making his second appearance at this theatre in as many months – that he retains our sympathy even as we share his girlfriends’ exasperation. And if the second, shorter act too quickly descends into one of the melancholy funks the poet was all too familiar with, the first has enough smart banter and aphoristic wit to make us see this unlikely Don Juan in a whole new light.