Four people become friends at the memorial service for Philip Larkin, who dies in 1985, and continue to meet annually to celebrate his life and works.
One of the problems a dramatist encounters in writing about his own enthusiasms is that he can appear to be engaging in a didactic exercise. This may be acceptable on the lecture circuit, but does it make for good theatre? On reading this play I was doubtful – I felt that I was being instructed, and to a certain extent patronised.
One reason could have been that the enthusiasm shown in the play was for Philip Larkin, a great poet, but a difficult man to assess. We are told by his friends that the rather awkward, reticent man seen by the public was warm, witty and a good mimic. Obviously Alan Plater idolised him, but most of us either never saw him, or caught the flavour of his public persona from a few television appearances, or from his generally pessimistic poems. Larkin’s own enthusiasm (and possibly Plater’s) was jazz, and this clearly has a place in the play.
Plater introduces us to four very different characters, who meet every year on the anniversary of Larkin’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey. This particular year Larkin himself joins them and, while he drinks and encourages them to talk of their experiences, they learn more about each other and him through his poetry, and how they came to love it. We are given flash-backs of how appreciating poetry, and particularly Larkin’s, affected their own lives, and relations with partners and colleagues and even themselves. It is in these short scenes that much of the drama is contained, between the conversational and mainly static body of the play. Throughout, jazz is heard on the hi-fi.
These scenes were very well performed by our four ‘fans’: Tom, played by Mark James with complete sincerity, is an electrician, who learns to love his home town, Hull, through Larkin’s verse; Christina (Claudia McKelvey) is an English teacher with very liberal views on poetry; Charles (Paul Morton) turns out to be a minister of the church whose faith is challenged by Larkin’s writings; and Barbara (Shelagh Ryan) is an ordinary housewife who by chance takes ‘modern poetry’ at night school, and becomes hooked. All of these characters were played with honesty and enthusiasm, which brought these parts of the play to life, and ensured that the evening was a success. Larkin’s own observations in the flashbacks were played with a suitably light touch, particularly where humour was involved.
The dialogue outside the reminiscences, the area where I considered Alan Plater was talking down to his audience, was a much more difficult proposition. I am not sure that any company could hold its audience with total success, as the writing (unusually for this writer) appears to me portentous. In fact, there is a dichotomy between the characters in conversation and in their outside lives. This may be because much of the dialogue comprises extracts from Larkin’s poems who, to these people, is a god.
The character of Larkin himself is difficult to play, as he appears to be at the same time showing off, and yet appearing to be man of the people. Barry Lee looked like a slimmer version of the poet, but was rather too tidily dressed. His voice suited Larkin’s public image, but could have taken on a different tone when quoting his own verses. This would then have relieved the rather reverential tone in a large portion of the play. Having said that, I thought much of what the actor did was appropriate and well-presented in what is an extremely difficult part.
Lighting, setting and props were all first-class, and playing ‘in the round’ worked very well. I particularly liked the projection onto the floor of the appearance of a stained-glass window. Apart from two cavils, I congratulate Ray Newton on a very well-directed production, which proved that the play can be performed, giving enjoyment to an audience. My two reservations? The script calls for the cast to listen to a jazz number at beginning of the second act. This was not done, and so we were not able to judge, as I am sure Alan Plater meant us to, the quality of the music. In fact, we could have heard more jazz throughout. My second disappointment was the ‘unmasking’ of Charles near the end of the play. I could not see the ‘dog collar’ from where I was sitting, and if I had not known the plot would have been lost for a minute or two. Perhaps the effect would have been more dramatic if he had removed his sweater in the centre of the room and turned to show his profession to the others.
These, however, are small points and do not detract for the quality of this production, which made up for any reservations I might have had about the script.