Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, Keith Waterhouse’s play about the trials and tribulations of Soho’s most infamous hell-raising journalist, is being performed this month in the very pub where it is set.
They don’t make ’em like they used to – for better or for worse.
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell is a tribute to a bygone age, when pubs shut in the afternoon and, to quote Bernard: “You could end up penniless, drunk and alone on less than a pound.” It makes me nostalgic for an era I was not alive to experience.
While Peter O’Toole’s much celebrated performance as Bernard (some might argue he had spent a lifetime training for the role) remains a dramatic benchmark, Robert Bathurst, who previously played Britain’s most notorious scribbler, womaniser, gambler and drunkard at The Coach & Horses in 2019, brings an altogether different quality to the role – less of the bombastic raconteur holding court and more of the world weary writer who has reached for the ground and hit it with an almighty thud.
It is a very different production, of course. While the O’Toole version, staged at various theatres including the Old Vic, had a few extra cast members to breathe life into Bernard’s anecdotes (and I have probably watched the recording of that production at least half a dozen times), Bathurst does it all alone, with some clever use of an answer machine and a radio. The genius of Waterhouse’s script is that it knows to leave Bernard’s writings largely intact – the words stagger off the page.
Performing it in The Coach & Horses itself adds to the experience of being trapped in the pub with Bernard, with Bathurst sauntering up and down, regaling us with tales of a misspent adulthood in the “enchanted dungheap” that was Soho, and the characters that made it what it was, from ‘No Knickers Joyce’ to famed jockey Lester Piggott. Most crucially, at the performance I attended Bathurst nailed the Waterhouse egg trick, to the delight of the audience. A further advantage of seeing it in the pub is the ability to enjoy a pint and packet of Scampi Fries with the play – you don’t get that at the National.
Some audiences members have very much been getting into the spirit of the play. The Times Diary reported that during one of the performances in the pub someone passed out at the bar, prompting Bathurst’s Bernard to say: “Not the first person to be taken out of The Coach & Horses feet first, I have to say.”
As the play’s title may suggest, Bernard’s hospital stints also figure in the play, serving as a bleak reminder that a life of excess does have its consequences. Bathurst acts these superbly – whether or not the tiredness he conveyed was due it being his second performance of the evening doesn’t matter. The staging also helps. There are limits to what you can do in a pub versus in a theatre, but by plunging everything into darkness except for a spotlight on Bernard, the production immediately conveys the isolation and, yes, loneliness of the character. The problem with that sort of lifestyle is that it leads to a rapidly thinning supply of friends.
Bernard’s Soho is very different to the Soho of today. The Coach & Horses itself remains hugely popular, as anyone who has ever tried to get a quick drink there on a Thursday night will tell you (as Bernard put it: “It takes longer to get a drink here than to get a refund out of the Inland Revenue”), but it is in and of itself a time capsule, barely changed. Indeed, I was shocked to watch the O’Toole production and see that the set of the pub they had created looked almost identical to how it has been since I started going – the only real difference is now there are various framed cartoons of Bernard on the walls, a shrine to the man responsible for the pub’s nickname ‘The Jeff Been Inn’. The Coach & Horses is still both refuge and muse for many a hack today.
This article was originally published by the drinks business and has been shared with permission.