Larkin’ About ditches the cycle clips, thank God. Yes, he mentions them in his poem Church Going, but that doesn’t mean that Philip Larkin wore them all the time. Stay with yellow socks and big specs. Sound better to you? Good, then go quickly and enjoy this show. It’s a really neat word ’n’ music combo.
We see two actors on a very small stage, and two musicians to their right. John Telfer is Larkin and Sunny Ormonde plays the different women in his life. Matt Platt and Ilone Antonius-Jones give us the jazz line. All in, it’s an amiable, warm sound. Louis Armstrong’s Dallas Blues is – for Larkin – the signal opening note, but Bessie Smith’s I’m Down in the Dumps is the lower, sadder, theme that is just as much sustained.
Both actors carry their scripts in open A4 books, and you quickly understand that this is a matter of careful, personally considered record. The audience hears highlighted text: extracts from letters, biography, fuller moments of commentary, pithy and revealing poetry. Often it is the audience that is spoken to. We hear Larkin’s caustic moans to Kingsley Amis about the expense of taking girls out. But as the women’s voices respond, you also realise the affection and love that did endure.
There are several women and Ormonde happily, half-apologetically, distinguishes between them. There is no mistaking the grievous hurt expressed in a letter from Monica Jones, Larkin’s dear friend and lover for over forty years, but even that is not allowed to displace the cuddles and the slow jive.
Sue Wilson’s assured direction allows Telfer’s Larkin room to move in a small space. He’ll sit or lean, attentive to Monica or Patsy or Winnifred or Betty, but it’s the voice that does it. The show’s handbill cheerfully headlines the fact that both performers are cast members of The Archers – much enjoyed by Larkin apparently – and there is a lot of the friendly intimacy of an old radio serial in this piece.
Except, except, that Philip Larkin is now one of the English poets of his time and “friendly” is not how you would want to characterise his work. Dry, wise, stoic, private, even guilty might do; and Larkin’ About, to its credit, does not disguise that. It gives you the Larkin who – spoiler alert but it’s irresistible – defined sex as “asking someone else to blow your nose for you”, and the poet who at 21 wrote Love, we must part now. Oh, and there’s all that jazz.