Philip Larkin: Ticket to rhyme

The statue of Philip Larkin on the concourse at Hull Paragon Interchange.
The statue of Philip Larkin on the concourse at Hull Paragon Interchange.
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50 YEARS ON: A train journey which inspired one of Philip Larkin’s most famous poems is to be recreated next week. Yvette Huddleston meets the team behind the project.

The train journey from Hull to King’s Cross in London might not immediately present itself as particularly poetic, but 50 years ago it inspired one of Philip Larkin’s best-known works. The poet’s seminal collection The Whitsun Weddings, first published in 1964, was a huge critical and commercial success and its title poem, described by the Times Educational Supplement as “one of the best poems of our time”, is to be recreated next week in a unique theatrical event.

Philip Larkin in the 1950s

Philip Larkin in the 1950s

In it Larkin describes his train ride, one balmy Saturday in June, through the East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire countryside steaming towards the capital “all windows down, all cushions hot”. At the time Whitsun was a popular choice for a wedding date and Larkin gradually becomes aware of the party atmosphere both on board and on the platforms as brides and grooms wave goodbye to friends and family to clamber onto the train, heading for their London honeymoon. “At first I didn’t notice what a noise/The weddings made/Each station we stopped at… All down the line/Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;/The last confetti and advice were thrown…”

Hull-based theatre company Ensemble 52 will be staging a dramatic interpretation of the narrative of the poem on the 12.30pm Hull to King’s Cross train next Friday – two days before Whitsun. Directed by Andy Pearson, the piece has been scripted by playwright Dave Windass, a writer and director with the company which has strong links with both the Larkin Society and Larkin 25, a group dedicated to commemorating the poet’s life and work.

“Andy won a prize from the Larkin Society and was invited to submit ideas for a show,” says Windass, explaining the background to the project. “It was his idea that we should celebrate The Whitsun Weddings poem and it’s an interesting project in terms of process. The production is a combination of scripted performance, improvisation and devised pieces.”

Two wedding couples will be boarding the train at Hull station with a wedding party seeing them off on the platform and, hopefully, a band playing Larkin’s beloved jazz. At several stations along the way, more newlyweds will join the train waved off by relatives all dressed in the fashions of the day. “The couples will remain in character throughout the journey,” says Windass. “We are trying to look at marriage as an institution from the 1960s to the present day and each couple will represent a different aspect of marriage.”

There are seven couples in all plus an actor playing Larkin and dozens of people populating the station platforms – actors from two amateur companies, Brough’s Petuaria Players and Doncaster Little Theatre – so logistically it is challenging and rehearsals have been interesting.

“One of the things we have had to consider is how a performance works on a train because it’s not the quietest place to stage drama,” says Windass. “In the rehearsal room we have got the dimensions of the carriage mapped out on the floor and we have photographs of it so all the actors know what’s in store. What we can’t anticipate is what it’s going to be like when the carriage is full of people – they might want to stand up and move about and we have to factor all that in – but we have got together a brilliant bunch of actors.”

Punctuating the action throughout the two and half hour journey there will be music featuring Larkin’s favourite jazz tunes as well as some very special recordings of a number of the other poems in the Whitsun Weddings collection, read by actor Bill Nighy. It is quite a coup to have got a Hollywood star and household name involved in the project.

“We made a list of actors who had the kind of voice who could give it the required gravitas and Bill Nighy came out on top,” says Windass. “What we didn’t know was that he is a big Larkin fan, so when we made a tentative enquiry as whether he fancied doing this he responded immediately and said he would be really happy to do it.” The on-board performance will be the only opportunity to hear the recordings as they will not be commercially available at a later date.

Windass admits to being slightly nervous – although very excited. “Unlike with other productions when you are working in a conventional theatre space, there are no technical rehearsals or previews – we have got this one shot on the train on the day,” he says. “For all the performers what is special is that it’s a one-off for everybody. Live performance is always a really amazing thing to be involved in but it’s great to be part of something that is so unique. We are making something that will hopefully be memorable for people and stay in their minds for years to come.”

The following day a plaque commemorating Larkin will be unveiled at King’s Cross station by Virginia Bottomley, the High Sheriff of Hull. Carved by Martin Jennings, the sculptor who created the statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station, the plaque will display the final lines of The Whitsun Weddings, which closes with characteristic Larkin melancholy: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.”

• The Whitsun Weddings on board the 12.30pm Hull to King’s Cross service, Friday, June 6. Tickets £65, £60 and £55 (includes travel to King’s Cross) from www.e52.co.uk and http://whitsunweddings.eventbrite.co.uk