‘Pretending To Be Me’ is a play compiled by Tom Courtenay from the writings of the poet Philip Larkin based on an idea by Michael Godley. Larkin’s poetry is much loved even through he often wrote about life’s uneasiness; boredom, loneliness, despair and of the sense of meaninglessness death gives to our existence. One senses that for Larkin the existentialist angst, as terrible as it is, makes life all the more precious. As he says at the end of his poem The Mower “Of each other, we should be kind. While there is still the time.”
Larkin in his personal life is a man of contradictions and it is this that has made him such a controversial figure after his death in 1985 at the age of 63. Andrew Motion’s contentious biography of Larkin paints the picture of a homophobic, misogynist, racist, far-right thatcherite who was addicted to pornography. A very unsavoury character who deserves our distain as much as his poetry deserves our admiration. However, it seems clear he was a far more complex person than the bogeyman Motion would have one to believe.
He had a simple love of animals and nature, he was a fan of Jazz and, of course, for many years of his life he loved writing poetry. He was a private man of few pleasures and simple tastes, but most of all he was honest. He once wrote “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 don’t want to go around pretending to be me”.
It is this lack of Larkin’s pretentiousness that is the hallmark of this play. We are presented Larkin, warts and all. What we discover is a man who is aware of his own humanity and foibles, who fears death and often feels trapped by boredom and fear and yet through his writing and sardonic wit found life tolerable. He was, underneath his apparently briskness, a gentle person, which was shown by the fact that when digging in his garden he would cover with soil any worms he uncovered to protect them from hungry birds, and he marked the death of a hedgehog killed in a lawn mower accident with a short poem describing his feelings of grief.
The play is set on the day that Larkin moved house and Courtenay chats away over mugs of tea and then later over large glasses of whiskey about Larkin’s life. He describes his bullying at school because of his stammer and tells us about his parents whilst quoting one of his more famous poems “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”. We learn of Larkin’s teenage joy at the discovery of Jazz and much more besides. Larkin’s poetry is weaved into the text and flows naturally in and out of the monologue which adds to it’s vitality. Larkin wrote his poetry in response to his life and his experiences, he was not what he would condescendingly describe a ‘sentimental’ poet.
Tom Courtenay gives a warm performance as Larkin, and he obviously loves both Larkin and his poetry. He takes delight in Larkin’s ability to shock and sense of mischievousness and yet hides none of his moroseness.
Notices from the popular press....
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "I felt I was seeing Larkin simplified for domestic theatrical consumption." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Amused and touched." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Although I rather enjoy some of Courtenay's vocal mannerisms, they soon stop me believing in him as Larkin." RACHEL HALLIBURTON for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Courtenay portrays Larkin as every inch the comic-tragedian." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Great acting, great jokes."
External links to full reviews from newspapers