Jeffrey Bernard is unwell

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell


Jeffrey Bernard is locked in the Coach and Horses pub, having ‘fallen asleep on the bog’ when last orders were called.  Alone overnight, he takes the opportunity to regale the audience with tales of his life of dissipation and humour.

This is the very thin premise of the play, a boozy tribute by Keith Waterhouse, an old drinking buddy of Bernard’s. The play won accolades when it was first on the West End in the early 90s.  Here it is performed within the pub itself where Bernard used to drink, as a ghost returning to his previous haunts.

When we see him behind the bar after he has been thrown out by his fourth wife and all he has is his suitcase with his Mozart tapes and a framed photograph of Lester Piggot.

His life is told in a series of images: how a weak, thin-skinned and oversensitive boy paid his first visit to Soho and found his spiritual home among the poets, painters and prostitutes.  After a stint in the army and low-paid employment of various types it was obvious he could not hold down a job ‘so he took up journalism.’

Bernard found that with his wit and laconic delivery, he could live on being louche: ‘I get paid £500 for an article on drinking.’  Bernard is best known for writing the Low Life column in the Spectator from which the title of the play comes as they would run that line when he failed to deliver copy.

The monologue is punctuated by such parlour tricks as cat racing and a stunt involving a glass of water, a tray and an egg, but the main contribution to theatre of this piece is its portrayal of the unpitying stance of the unreformed alcoholic.  He does not care if you condemn his life; he doesn’t have that much respect for yours.

Barnard’s gift is the unflinching self-absorption which does not avoid the more unpleasant aspects of his lifestyle, ‘If you can’t hit a friend who can you hit?’ as he says.

Robert Bathurst’s ravaged features and delivery of craggy self-indulgence are a perfect fit for Bernard.  It is no surprise to find Robert Bathurst is a man of the turf himself having written on horseracing and directed a film about jockeys.  As Bernard he inhabits the persona of the drunken racegoer and invites us to peek in to the world of tipsters, tic-tak men, bookies’ runners and match commentators.

In a sensitive revival of the stage comic drunk, Bathurst portrays the selfishness of alcoholism and the contempt of the alcoholic for any other kind of life.  Like most of Waterhouse’s writing, its superficial humour conceals deeper truths which are revealed through the debauched glamour of Bathurst’s portrayal.