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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Pretending To Be Me
by Lizzie Loveridge

The little lives of earth and form,
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless:
We hanker for the homeliness
Of den, and hole, and set.

And this identity we feel
- Perhaps not right, perhaps not real -
Will link us constantly;
I see the rock, the clay, the chalk,
The flattened grass, the swaying stalk,
And it is you I see.

The Little Lives of Earth and Form-- by Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin, the British poet of the mid twentieth century is a paradox. Whilst his poems are sensitive and beautiful, his personal beliefs and behaviour are questionable and ugly. Admittedly it may be unfair to judge him in this day and age of political correctness. Many of his contemporaries would have held beliefs which now we would call racist, xenophobic and homophobic, it is just that we do not expect poets to be anything other than romantic and tolerant. Tom Courtenay, who hails from Larkin's adopted home town of Hull where Larkin was the university librarian, has compiled Larkin's own words from letters, lectures, books and poems into a one man show. It is a most splendid performance from Courtenay. It must help an actor to be performing his own brain child.

The title Pretending To Be Me is taken from Larkin's comment on poets who make their living solely from their poetry, unlike Larkin, who chose less precarious full time employment elsewhere. "Nowadays you can live by being a poet, but it means giving readings and lecturing and spending a year at university as a poet in residence or something. I couldn't bear that. I don't want to go round pretending to be me." Courtenay has included many such insights into his two hours but there is only Larkin's account and only Larkin's analysis of those contradictory feelings. Is it the same man who could write a sensitive poem about the loss of a woman's maiden name who also had a collection of pornography? There are salient epigrams, "Novels are about other people and poems are about yourself".

The play is set on one day, among the cardboard cartons and tea chests in the dishevelled house, that Larkin is forced to move to after his landlord evicts him from the apartment he has lived in for many years. He starts the day in a grey suit with a boring tie with a cup of tea and ends it in a brown cardigan with a glass of whisky. Lighting changes turn the walls of the set through brown, mauve, pale green and blue.

Courtenay has ensured that much of the show is an assortment of gems of Larkin's dry wit and wry anecdote. He is nothing if not cantankerous. His humour is often cruel and he himself is frequently the butt of his own jokes. He shares a life changing moment with us, "I counted it as one of the great moments of my life when I realised one could walk out of a theatre and not come back." The poetry, some of which is read in its entirety blends into the monologues almost seamlessly. Courtenay has included information on Larkin's "dull, pot-bound and slightly mad" family, the inspiration for the line of his he feared would be the only one to get into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations -
"They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you. " We are not told that Larkin's father, the City Treasurer of Coventry was an admirer of Adolf Hitler.

The unmarried poet as a child had problems communicating with other children, stating "I used to think that I hated everyone but when I grew up, I realised it was just children I hated." He wasn't at ease with women, "Women don't just sit still and back you up.". It is only when he starts on the subject of jazz that he finds some joy. He lovingly places a vinyl Armstong on his record player and explains how he tried to learn to dance from one of those charts with black and white footsteps. Larkin is essentially a lonely figure, for him "Life is first boredom then fear." He is passionately anti-religion. Whilst not all the unpleasant aspects of Larkin, which were brought out in Andrew Motion's 1993 biography, are in Pretending To Be Me, towards the end of the show, the audience shifts uncomfortably when Courtenay as Larkin mentions "homos".

Courtenay has made no concession to looking like Larkin other than the suit and glasses but his delivery is so expressive, his upper arms are pinned to his side but his hand gestures are expansive. He is such a natural that I found the occasional member of the audience would say something out loud in reply to him, so convinced were they that he was just talking to them. His imitation of Larkin imitating fellow poet Ted Hughes reading a pastiche of turgid Hughes-like poetry is memorable as is his description of Hughes as looking like a "Christmas Present from Easter Island". Above all the variety of Courtenay's pace and timbre make this show a masterclass in monologue. There are Lakin's many reflection on death from his last collection of poetry High Windows. The lines " The good not done, the love not given, time/ Torn off unused " sum up Larkin's sense of regret and illustrate his use of original metaphor, the idea of the waste of time, torn off like a sheet of paper and left blank.

Pretending To Be Me
Compiled by Tom Courtenay from the writing of Philip Larkin after an idea by Michael Godley
Directed by Ian Brown

Starring: Tom Courtenay
Designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting Designer: Jason Taylor
Sound: Mic Pool
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7369 1731
Booking to 26th April 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th February 2003 Performance at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1 (Tube Station: Piccadilly Circus)
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