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A CurtainUp London London Review
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

I was once asked to write my autobiography. I put an ad in the Spectator asking if anyone could remember what I was doing between 1960 and 1974.
---- Jeffrey Bernard
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Tom Conti as Jeffrey Bernard
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
Set in a London pub, The Coach and Horses in Soho is this revival of Keith Waterhouse's tribute to his friend and raconteur, journalist, alcoholic, gambler and serial monogamist, Jeffrey Bernard. Tom Conti, he of the gravelly voice, plays Jeffrey Bernard with a charm that, instead of having you edging away from the drunk in the bar, would have you seeking him out to listen to his stories. Sadly Jeffrey Bernard died in the 1990s but he was involved with the first inception of this play when Peter O'Toole was cast as the old reprobate.

Conti's entrance is classic. It is 5am. He crawls out from under a table in the bar at The Coach and Horses where for the night he has been locked in the gentlemen's lavatory at closing time. With hands shaking, he helps himself to a liberal amount of vodka and proceeds to hold the stage for two hours. The stories are legion but it is Conti's warm hearted delivery which raises this play above a bar room comedy. John Gunter's set is an exact reproduction of the pub bar with distorted angles maybe an alcoholic's view of the perpendicular?

Other characters appear from flaps in the stage for asides, or onstage to interact with JB. Four other actors play numerous parts, employers, hacks, actors, tarts, fellow drinkers and gamblers, ex-wives, policemen, and officials from HM Customs and Excise after Bernard's foray into running his own betting shop from the bar in The Coach and Horses without paying duty. Ned Sherrin directs for some fast character switches.

What we get is a picture of Soho from the 1960s to 1980s before the hacks all made off to new computerised typsetting premises in Wapping. Jeffrey divulges everything, details of his drinking, his love life, his impotence, in a witty and self deprecating way. Conti will grin at the audience as he sets up the raw egg into a beer glass trick and relates how when it goes wrong, several thousands of pounds worth of damage can be caused. He staggers across the stage with egg and water, an accident waiting to happen while the front row of the stalls recoil and wish they'd worn old raincoats. All the time he talks to the audience he seems amused, raising an eyebrow with a quizzical glance, his dark eyes twinkling with laughter. Only the congenitally grumpy could fail to smile.

The title of the show derives from the printed blank page when JB's column did not appear in The Spectator due to the inebriation of its author, and it was too late to find a substitute piece. Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell pales a little towards the end of the first act but if you leave at the interval you will miss a gloriously funny second act. My favourite has to be the Find the Lady story in a country house during a lull in the racing season because of bad weather. It appears that this man had been blessed with triplets, two boys and a girl. I don't know whether I more enjoyed the fumbling of the father to ascertain who had won the bet or the indignation of the mother in rescuing her brood of babies from the drunken gamblers. Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell does not really engage the serious issues of liver disease and addictive behaviours, although you cannot see the show without thinking about this. Tom Conti is delightful in this nostalgia piece about a non-conformist life without responsibility or forethought.

Written by Keith Waterhouse based on the life and writings of Jeffrey Bernard
Directed by Ned Sherrin

Starring: Tom Conti
With: Royce Mills, Elizabeth Payne, Tristan Gemmill, Nina Young
Design: John Gunter
Lighting: Leonard Tucker
Sound: Gareth Owen for Orbital
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1104
Booking at the Garrick Theatre to 2nd September 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st June performance at the Garrick, Charing Cross Road, London WC2 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross/Trafalgar Square)
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