Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
London's infamous Soho has changed immeasurably since the days when one of its most notorious inhabitants - one Jeffrey Bernard - became well and truly hooked on its sordid charm and innate bohemian seediness, and made the 'Coach and Horses' public house in Greek Street his 'home', and subsequently 'never looked forward'. Along with a gaggle of miscreants, gamblers, and hardened boozers as companions, Bernard drank his way through a lifetime in the 'Coach and Horses' – as well as other West End drinking clubs and pubs - describing himself as 'one who lives what's called the low life'.
Born in 1932, Jeffrey Bernard was the son of an opera singer and an architect father who designed the famous Lyons' Corner Houses in London. Although his parents had intentions for Jeffrey - sending him to be educated at a famous naval college - it wasn't long before he started to show his true colours. Even before being declared psychologically unsuitable for life in a public school, he'd already discovered Soho, and once settled there, he never really left apart from occasional forays to race meetings.
Bernard initially worked in various poorly paid, menial jobs before someone caught on to the idea that he had a knack for writing and persuaded him to try journalism. As his reputation grew, the Spectator magazine gave him a column which was described by one wit as 'a suicide note in weekly instalments'. The title of this play comes from the editor's note which replaced Bernard's column in the Spectator whenever his alcoholic stupors or meanderings prevented him from writing it. On one occasion, it was replaced by an irate editorial complaint that his article for the current edition bore a striking resemblance to the one he wrote for the previous week!
Ned Sherrin's revival of his 1989 production of Keith Waterhouse's play is unusual in the way of revivals. It's not only resurrected the same set with alcohol-induced, skewed perspective which I remember from the original, but also sees the title role once again falling into the lap of one of the West End's favourite actors, Tom Conti.
The basic plot is that Bernard wakes at 5 am one day to find he's been inadvertently locked inside the 'Coach and Horses'. It's not long before he realises that he's about to have the best service he's ever had in the pub, because he can now help himself. And so he does, drinking the best part of a bottle of vodka while he reminisces about his life, his drinking and gambling, his romantic entanglements with his 4 wives, and describing some of the humorously bizarre events which happened to him and his scandalous pals. For example, there are recreations of a harsh winter when racing was abandoned, where Bernard and his gambling-addicted chums set up a cat racing meeting. In a different scene, they employ a set of triplets as the vehicles for a 'find the lady' bet. There's also a wittily played scene with Bernard satirising 'Mr and Mrs Backbone'. And Conti also pulls-off a neat trick with a glass of water, a match box case and an egg, after some gentle teasing of the audience.
A team of four supporting actors including Royce Mills (who also appeared in the original production) provide the remaining characterisations: an odd assortment of judges, landlords, Bernard's wives and the like, who float on and off the set as Bernard passes the time while waiting for the landlord to release him from his incarceration in the pub.
In Sherrin's original production, the title role of Bernard was initially taken by Peter O'Toole for the first 3 months of its run, and then Conti subsequently took up the reigns. It's hard to imagine two people who could provide such different styles for a role. As I recollect, O'Toole invested the part with a forlorn tragedy and trance-like semi-detachment, often seeming to address not only imaginary characters, but an imaginary audience as well. Peter O'Toole and Bernard – both born in the same year - also had an uncanny resemblance if Trevor Leighton's 1990 photographic portrait of Bernard in the programme is anything to go by. But here, Conti is rather more lucid and cogent. At times, in spite of his numerous trips, staggers and trembling hands, it's just stretching the imagination to believe that Conti's Bernard is a man who's stomach and brain were all but 'pickled' from alcohol misuse. Whereas O'Toole managed to encapsulate a sense that the man wasn't quite 'all there', Conti seems more like a regular guy who's just had a few too many, particularly since his facial features are too well-rounded to reflect the haggard visage of one who's eaten far too little and drunk far too much, for far too long.
What's most striking about this revival is that it has even been revived at all. When the play was first produced it had considerable topicality because most people knew about Bernard and his antics. I'm sure that, today, most people wouldn't have a vague idea of who he was. At the same time, the play describes a by-gone era which would not be recognised by the thousands who daily flock to the sanitised confines of present-day Soho. Although it's entertaining if you're of a 'certain age', it's otherwise an anachronistic museum-piece. And I wasn't surprised when two bemused, younger members of the audience along the row from me did not return for the second half – presumably they were off to do a bit of 'binge drinking' in Soho!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS JE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Intermittently amuses in Ned Sherrin's spirited production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Tom Conti gives a good, unsentimental performance...But Conti, for all his skill, never makes you warm to the old toper." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Ned Sherrin's production gets the most out of the often entertaining anecdotes." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "There’s laughter round every corner of Ned Sherrin’s production." It’s a decent performance (by Conti) but not the great one his predecessor (Peter O’Toole) ended up giving."