‘It’s a cliché but it’s true: my university days were the happiest of my life and have had a hugely formative influence on my life and career, both for better and for worse… Discussing Larkin, his work, life and ‘women’ with Rosie at our two Q&As during the Old Red Lion run brought back very happy memories of performances in the Gulbenkian, dinners at Audrey & Peter’s in Beverley, trips out to the Yorkshire coast, and sharing an old-fashioned self-contained train compartment from Kings Cross.’Daniel Wain
On the 7th of September, a group of alumni met at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London to watch a showing of ‘Larkin with Women’, a play about the last 30 years of Philip Larkin’s life, starring and produced by Hull alumnus Daniel Wain.
Larkin famously spent these last 30 years as librarian at the University of Hull, and with many alumni having seen him around on campus and considering that this year marks the centenary year of his birth, it was an exceptional event to attend.
Before the play started, guests reminisced about their time on campus including their memories of Larkin (most describing him as a recluse, and even a ‘ghoul’!), and there were conversations about how Larkin might be portrayed in the play considering the reputation he had as a person outside of his poetry, and whether we can/should be celebrating him.
The play gave us an insight into what life was like for Larkin during his time as Head Librarian, and follows his relationships with three women up until his death. Although the play’s tone generally parallels Larkin’s unhappiness, there were many funny moments depicting Larkin’s wit and irony.
Daniel Wain was great as Philip Larkin, and was generous enough to come and speak to guests after the show finished. Daniel addressed the fact that Larkin comes across fairly well in the play but that in reality he was more reserved, especially considering his posthumous reputation as a racist/misogynist.
All in all, guests had a very enjoyable evening in a wonderful little theatre. Thank you very much, Daniel, for inviting us to come and watch. We’ll keep an eye out for what you get up to next!
Keep scrolling to read an interview with Daniel below.
Where there any aspects of your experience at Hull which helped you in your current role in “Larkin With Women”?
Philip Larkin died during my second year at Hull. I can’t say that I took much notice of his existence or even his death. Although I was a Drama & English undergraduate, he wasn’t really on my radar before or during my time at university, and certainly wasn’t a contributory factor in choosing Hull. John Godber, Hull Truck, the movie “Clockwise”, the Housemartins, Everything but the Girl, even Princess Anne re-opening the New Theatre? Yes. A bloated, bourgeois, right-wing reactionary who infamously disliked students? No.
I do remember his death though. I shared a slug-infested slum in De Grey Street with several ‘Young Ones’, including Del, who edited “Hullfire”, the student union magazine. One evening in December 1985, Del came into the pub and told us that Philip Larkin was dead. We shrugged. He needed a headline. After a couple of pints and a few laughs, we settled on ‘No More Larkin About’. Del went with that, and got sacked for irreverence, as I recall.
Coming to “Larkin With Women”, it definitely helped that I could picture the university, the library, Pearson Park, and even tap into other sensory memories such as the ‘fishy’ smell at which Larkin loved to literally turn up his nose. Sadly, when studying at Hull, I was so immersed in the student life, that I didn’t really connect with the city and its residents even when living right amongst them, beyond going to a few local clubs (Spiders, the Welly, the Warehouse) and making ourselves unpopular.
Since I graduated in 1987, I have revisited a few times, most recently in 2018 (as part of the research for my first production of Ben Brown’s “Larkin With Women”) and then again this year, when I was fortunate enough to be invited by the Philip Larkin Society (PLS) to the official centenary celebration on 9th August: first for the Simon Armitage recital in Middleton Hall and then the private dinner for 30 guests at Staff House. This visit was also the first time that I visited Cottingham and the cemetery where Larkin and two of his ’women’ (Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan) are buried. I got a taxi from Paragon station, which waited while I located all three graves. A surprisingly moving experience for me, and a bemusing one for the cabbie, albeit a lucrative one.
Have you played Philip Larkin before “Larkin With Women”? How was Larkin different/the same in this play?
I first played Larkin in 2018 for one week at a local theatre in Twickenham. I loved the role, and the play, and always wanted the opportunity to revisit him and improve upon the original production. For the 2022 show, I deliberately chose a different director and designer, and recast half of the cast, with only myself and the original ‘Maeve’ returning. I like to think that I found more depth and variety in my portrayal, rectifying some elements that I wasn’t happy with in the original. For example, this time, we all focused more on the ageing of the four characters. Larkin starts in his mid-thirties and we follow him until his death at the age of 63. I also realised the need for a more three-dimensional ‘arc’. Last time, I played the early scenes too curmudgeonly, whereas with this production I tried to reflect that, in the 1950s, Larkin was a successful young man, with a prestigious new job, best-selling debut poetry collection and attractive, highly intelligent partner with whom he was having lots of mildly kinky sex. So this time I tried to make him a lot more chipper and sprightly upfront, before souring and sinking into writers’ block-ridden, drink-sodden depression in the latter half of the play.
Had you seen Philip Larkin around campus while you were at the University of Hull? If so, what was your impression of him and how did it influence your portrayal of him?
I only saw him once. I rarely entered the library and, by the end of his life, I think that applied to him too. It was the spring term of 1985 (my first year). I had heard talk of a fabled refectory more salubrious than the student bar: Staff House. Its name implied that it was off-limits to the likes of me, but it wasn’t; anyone could wander in and get a drink, which is what I did. It was hardly Hogwarts, more like a Holiday Inn: functional, heavily-wooden and empty but for one other customer. There, sitting on a barstool, at the other end of the long counter was a face that was vaguely familiar: that of Philip Larkin. It took me a while to recognise him: a rather sad old man with a Scotch. I didn’t approach him. He wasn’t really approachable. I had the one pint and sidled out. Larkin, I suspect, stayed for a few more. So, in short, I only saw the stereotyped, cliched image that Larkin liked to present to the world to keep strangers at arms’ length. In my case, it certainly worked. With hindsight, I wish I had approached the old boy in that pre-Wetherspoons bar. “There is regret. Always, there is regret”.
What other research did you do for this role?
For the original 2018 production? Lots! I read all of Larkin’s poetry, his “Required Writing” and “Further Requirements” (featuring his interviews, articles on jazz, broadcasts and book reviews), his letters to Monica, even his two novels “Jill” and “A Girl in Winter”. Plus Andrew Motion’s and James Booth’s often conflicting biographies, previous PLS President and Larkin confidante Anthony Thwaite’s hagiography “Larkin at Sixty”, Maeve Brennan’s highly questionable memoirs and the fascinating “The Importance of Elsewhere – Philip Larkin’s Photographs” by Richard Bradford. I even ploughed through Larkin’s final major work: “The Brynmor Jones Library 1929-1979”, which is mentioned, quite rightly without enthusiasm, in the play.
This time around, because I was also producing as well as playing Larkin, I had less time for research, but hoped that all that earlier stuff was still in my sub-conscious somewhere. That said, this year, I was fortunate to have access to the PLS, their highly informative and entertaining podcast (“Tiny in All that Air”), the memories collected by the Hull Alumni team, photographs kindly provided by the Hull University Archives, as well as, most intriguingly, access to those who knew Larkin, Monica, Maeve and/or Betty. The 9th August centenary dinner, in what had been Staff House, proved especially useful, particularly in hearing personal memories, many of which undermined the clichés and myths around Larkin.
Is producing a new role for you? What made you want to produce “Larkin With Women”?
I ran Strut & Fret (whose name comes from a line in ‘the Scottish play’) in the 1990s. We performed about a dozen productions at both the Edinburgh and London fringes. Sadly, at the turn of the millennium, I had to let Strut & Fret fall dormant due to the ‘day job’ getting too much. However, I always wanted to resuscitate the company: one of the reasons why I gave up my salaried job and went freelance as a learning & development consultant, trainer and coach 15 years ago. I then spent a decade acting and writing for local companies before finally dipping my toe back into the producing waters with a co-production (with another company) of Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser” in 2019, in which I also played Norman. I then had a show ready to play the Edinburgh Fringe in 2020, but COVID put paid to that. I next produced a couple of monologues at the Camden Fringe in 2021, one of which I performed and the other of which I directed. The success of both “The Dresser” and the Camden shows gave me the confidence to step up and produce a full three-week run at a more prestigious London fringe venue this year. When looking for a suitable vehicle, I obviously wanted something with a decent part for me! Larkin came to mind, and when I realised that 2022 was his centenary, it seemed a no-brainer. Incidentally, at that 9th August dinner, I had the pleasure of sitting next to son-of-Hull Tom Courtenay who has also played both Norman and Larkin, so we didn’t want for conversation.
Considering the link between Larkin and the University of Hull, what did it mean to you to play this role?
If nothing else, “Larkin With Women” gave me a reason to visit Hull again. Twice! On my 2018 trip, I was amazed at how Hull had unashamedly embraced Larkin (the statue at Paragon station, the city-wide toads, the Larkin trail), just at the same time as much of the rest of the establishment had started to cancel him. But then Hull always was a contrary maverick, and that’s what both Larkin and I love about it!
In what ways has the University of Hull remained in your life, if any (personally or professionally)?
It’s a cliché but it’s true: my university days were the happiest of my life and have had a hugely formative influence on my life and career, both for better and for worse. As for the latter, replace Larkin’s ‘mum and dad’ with ‘tutors and lecturers’. They may not have meant to, but they did! UnLarkin-like, seeing the half-full glass, I made several connections who have remained very good friends, including Rosie Millard, now President of the PLS and a much-appreciated supporter of this production “Larkin With Women”. Discussing Larkin, his work, life and ‘women’ with Rosie at our two Q&As during the Old Red Lion run brought back very happy memories of performances in the Gulbenkian, dinners at Audrey & Peter’s in Beverley, trips out to the Yorkshire coast, and sharing an old-fashioned self-contained train compartment from Kings Cross, where now, of course, the tribute to Larkin, one of our greatest writers (“A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain”) is overshadowed by that to Harry Potter, one of our most over-hyped literary brands.
This production of “Larkin With Women” was staged less than a mile from Kings Cross, and gave me an opportunity to reunite with several other old Hull buddies and housemates, who kindly came along to support me. Indeed, the ‘Betty’ in our production described the whole run as like a three-week “This is Your Life” for me, as it attracted friends from all stages and spheres of my life. It was, and for that I thank Larkin, Hull and, most importantly, those friends. Bless you!