Philip Larkin is arguably Britain’s greatest poet of the 20th century and certainly a highly complex and controversial figure. In this, his centenary year, Larkin divides opinion more than ever as a literary lion to some and an unforgiveable bigot to others. Larkin with Women, Ben Brown’s award-winning play, is a provocative, funny and moving exposé of the last thirty years of Larkin’s life, spent as Librarian at Hull University.
The play hinges on Larkin’s relationships, and often simultaneous affairs, with a trio of very different women and how these relationships impacted his outlook and his work. This powerhouse production from five-star company Strut & Fret sits at the heart of the official Larkin100 programme marking 100 years since Philip Larkin’s birth and it is also the only Larkin-related play being professionally produced in this centenary year.
Larkin is a poet who was frequently, and increasingly, at odds with himself in regard to his ethnic and religious beliefs. A recluse, Larkin wrote often about unhappiness while increasingly becoming idolised in the wider world during the latter half of his time at Hull.
Despite Larkin’s doggedly outdated attitudes, Ben Brown’s play presents a witty, poignant and thought provoking examination of the many threads of Larkin’s puzzling personality and offers Monica, Betty and Maeve as a window into this conundrum.
The fact that three strong, intelligent, independent women loved both him and his work encourages an audience to reappraise the now widespread image of a bigoted, racist misogynist.
Commemorating his centenary, this revival is the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate Philip Larkin as writer, lover and human being. First staged at the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, and then at the Orange Tree in Richmond, Larkin With Women received the TMA Award for Best New Play. The Times’ review of Larkin with Women in 1999 praised Ben Brown for creating a man long on shortcomings but so drily, ruefully witty that the women’s fondness for him makes sense, while The Independent called the production shrewd and highly entertaining.
Strut & Fret was founded in 1995 to take Michael Frayn’s iconic farce Noises Off to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and received glowing five-star reviews and a sell-out run as a result.
They returned to the Fringe the following two years before beginning to produce solely in London. Look Behind You, produced at the Tabard in December 1999 proved to be Strut & Fret’s swansong.
Until, in 2019, Strut & Fret staged their first show in nearly two decades, a highly successful production of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser at Hampton Hill Playhouse. Due to the critical success of this production, Strut & Fret determined to take another show up to the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe; a revival of their initial hit Noises Off to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original production. Sadly, this was cancelled due to the pandemic. 2022 is the ideal time to revive and re-evaluate Larkin With Women in the context of the centenary and changing societal attitudes.
Larkin With Women is at The Old Red Lion Theatre Wednesday 31st August to Saturday 17th September 2022