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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Garrick Theatre       Summer 2006

Tom Conti may be the warmest, most charming actor in the world, and a couple of hours spent in his company will always be a delight. And it is that delight that is the primary attraction of this return visit of Keith Waterhouse's 1989 play.

Jeffrey Bernard was a journalist and an alcoholic (if that's not a tautology). In the 1980s he wrote a column for The Spectator, but frequently went on benders that kept him from delivering copy on time. On those occasions the editors would print an apology in the form of the play's title.

Waterhouse imagines that Bernard has fallen asleep in the Gents of his favourite Soho pub and awakened to find himself alone and locked in.

Not particularly upset by this fate, he takes the opportunity to reminisce and share his best anecdotes (The text is about 2/3 Bernard, taken from various writings, 1/3 Waterhouse's transitions).

And so we get a string of funny stories, bar tricks, memories of drinking buddies and past wives, and views on topics ranging from horse racing to the differences between London and country pubs.

All are delivered between dips into a bottle of vodka liberated from behind the bar, while a supporting cast of four take turns zipping on and off as various figments of Bernard's memory and imagination.

You may have spotted a problem of taste here. Perhaps it is the passage of almost two decades, but some may have difficulty with the romanticising of a life-wasting drunk, and a small but noticeable part of the audience doesn't return after the interval.

This is despite all the charm and comic talent Tom Conti brings to the role. If Bernard sometimes seems just another garrulous old drunk, Conti does his best to make him irresistible.

Aside from his own personality and the occasional open flirting with the audience, he offers the pleasure of watching the pure technique of a master, as when Bernard, with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, can't quite work out which to attack first, or when he trips on the same step over and over without ever actually repeating himself.

Ned Sherrin is the nominal director, though Conti has played this role so often over the years that he hardly needed guidance. Royce Mills stands out among the supporting cast - he has also been in the play before, and knows where all the laughs are to be found.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell - Garrick Theatre 2006
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