Comedy by Keith Waterhouse, based on the life and writings of Jeffrey Bernard. In a life devoted to alcohol, gambling and women, Jeffrey Bernard distinguished himself by excess. From his colourful contributions to the Spectator's Low Life column, Keith Waterhouse has created a gloriously funny and occasionally poignant stage entertainment. Jeff finds himself trapped overnight in his favourite Soho pub - the Coach and Horses - as a cast of ex-wives, friends and enemies join him in retracing scenes from a life packed with hysterical and absurbist incident.
The Coach and Horses, where Jeffrey Bernard in Unwell is set, is at 29 Greek Street, Soho. It is still a pub but Norman Balon, the landlord, retired in April 2006.
Keith Waterhouse said about writing this play that "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell is drawn, and in some parts expanded, from the writings of the Soho slouch-about-town Jeffrey Bernard, mainly his 'Low Life' column in the Spectator magazine - a series of 800-word essays going back fifteen years or so... I don't remember quite how the notion of dramatizing Jeffrey Bernard's life and times came into my head; all I remember is not having very much idea how to set about it. At first I conceived it as a one-man show but couldn't arouse much interest in the project, either in myself or my associates. One-man shows are popular with actors, who like to have a fat part which they can take out of the suitcase from time to time and perform for a few evenings between engagements, but with some notable exceptions they tend not to be popular with managements, who find them a risky proposition. Then one night at the opera the whole thing suddenly fell into place. I had spent the afternoon with Jeff, reminiscing over a few large vodkas at the Groucho Club. During an interminable recitative in Tosca my mind wandered to a basement theatrical club we had been talking about, which both of us used to frequent. I remembered how a certain casting director, well known for his capacity for alcohol, had somehow managed to get himself locked in the place and had awoken under a bench at two in the morning. He rang the club proprietor who, mindful of his stock, begged him hysterically, 'Don't move. Don't touch anything. I'll be right down!' I had my play. I would lock Jeff in the Coach and Horses - his Soho second home - for the night, and while he was waiting for 'old Norman', the landlord, to come and rescue him, he would reminisce about his life and the people he had known, brood on his (usually disastrous) relationships with women and, as he remembered, make caustic comments on the passing show. A small company of actors would play the motley band of friends and hangers-on encountered over the years, making their entrances and exits from any direction except that of the conspicuously locked street door... Ostensibly talking to himself, Jeff would of course be addressing the audience. And, with the assistance of his repertory company of pub companions, he would enact the scenes he was describing."
Original London West End Production 1989
Preview 16 October 1989, Opened 18 October 1989, Closed 27 October 1990 at the Apollo Theatre
Returned 20 March 1991, Closed 25 May 1991 at the Shaftesbury Theatre
The original cast at the Apollo Theatre up to Saturday 3 March 1990 featured Peter O'Toole as 'Jeffrey Bernard' with Timothy Ackroyd, Sarah Berger, Annabel Leventon and Royce Mills.
The second cast from Monday 5 March to Saturday 28 July 1990 featured Tom Conti as 'Jeffrey Bernard' with Timothy Ackroyd, Vanessa Knox-Mawer, Annabel Leventon and Royce Mills.
The third cast from Monday 30 July to Saturday 27 October 1990 featured James Bolam as 'Jeffrey Bernard' with Amanda Drewry, Stephen Earle, Annbel Leventon and Royce Mills.
The cast for the return season at the Shaftesbury Theatre from Wednesday 20 March to Saturday 25 May 1991 featured Peter O'Toole as 'Jeffrey Bernard' with Timothy Ackroyd, Annabel Leventon, Royce Mills and Arkie Whiteley.
Directed by Ned Sherrin with sets by John Gunter, costumes by Stephen Brimson-Lewis, lighting by Mick Hughes with lighting at Shaftesbury Theatre by Simon Opie.
1st London West End Revival 1999
Previewed 27 July 1999, Opened 4 August 1999, Closed 25 September 1999 at the Old Vic
The cast featured Peter O'Toole as 'Jeffrey Bernard' with Timothy Ackroyd, Sarah Berger, Annabel Leventon and Royce Mills. Directed by Ned Sherrin with sets by John Gunter, costumes by Heather Leat and lighting by Simon Opie.
This production, which featured the entire original cast from the 1989 staging, was filmed at the Old Vic Theatre, for a video release, in front of a live audience over three performances on Thursday 16, Friday 17 and Saturday 18 September 1999.
"Peter O'Toole's performance as the shambolic and alcoholic journalist Jeffrey Bernard is a classic. He first played the role in the West End between 1989 and 1991, when Bernard was still alive, and has now returned to the role at the Old Vic... True, O'Toole does not quite give the performance he did 10 or eight years ago... Yet this remains a superlative performance. You hang in delight on O'Toole's sudden dips into his port-soaked chest register, on the wonderfully hopeful upward flicks with which he ends so many sentences, on the enchantingly casual falsetto notes and tiny, crumbling catches in his voice... O'Toole is a master of phrasing. The sheer length of the multiple sentences he sometimes rattles off in one breath is one kind of marvel, but finer yet is his punctuation." The Financial Times
"This is a rollicking monodrama, Beckett on a bar stool, in which our hero's life flashes before him and he celebrates the amazing joke of being born. Life is a downhill struggle with no going forward, and marriage a lost cause in which drink is the other woman. Peter O'Toole is seedier, slightly slower but just as charming as before, lightly spewing his elegant paragraphs of self-deprecation through a constant swirl of cigarette smoke... It is a brilliant format. Keith Waterhouse has said that whereas once this play was a requiem for old Soho, now it is a requiem for old Jeff Bernard, who died two years ago... Director Ned Sherrin and designer John Gunter, as before, recreate the Soho pub's interior, with its buff panelled walls tilting in tipsy sympathy, cartoons and red leather banquettes. AND, amazingly, the same agile support cast of Annabel Leventon (marvellous as the carnal tarts), Sarah Berger (the repetitive wives), Royce Mills (authority figures and buffoons) and Timothy Ackroyd (everyone else) are all chipping in once more... a lovely evening, full of wit, anger, brio and forlorn stoicism on Bernard's enchanted dung heap of bohemian Soho." The Daily Mail
"Why do we still care? Wy should Keith Waterhouse's play about a famous alcoholic columnist still keep us entertained, and even moved, 10 years on? It's partly, of course, because of Peter O'Toole's hypnotic performance; but also because the play itself is a strange mix of interrupted Beckettian monologue and affectionate memoir to a dying Soho. The play is a kind of Waiting for Norman,or even Jeff's Last Krapp, in which the eponymous hero, locked in the Coach and Horses overnight, passes the dawn hours reviewing his gloriously mis-spent life... The play is packed with funny stories but running through it you also feel the loneliness of the long-distance drinker; and when O'Toole finally picks up his suitcase and carrier-bag in quivering hands he resembles nothing so much as Beckett's Lucky without the halter. But Waterhouse's script also turns Bernard's musings into a paean to a departed Soho. It's not just that we get a roll-call of familiar names such as Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, John Minton and Muriel Belcher... It may occasionally romanticise its hero and setting. But O'Toole's performance remains an extraordinary mix of transubstantion and technique." The Guardian
Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell in London at the Old Vic Theatre previewed from 27 July 1999, opened on 4 August 1999 and closed on 25 September 1999
2nd London West End Revival 2006
Previewed 12 June 2006, Opened 19 June 2006, Closed 2 September 2006 at the Garrick Theatre
The cast featured Tom Conti as 'Jeffrey Bernard' with Tristan Gemmill, Royce Mills, Elizabeth Payne and Nina Young. (During the run Dominic Jephcott took over from Tristan Gemmill). Directed by Ned Sherrin with sets by John Gunter, costumes by Debbie Bennett and lighting by Leonard Tucker.
Tom Conti - who is reprising his title role performance said: "I first played Jeff in the West End in 1990, when the man himself was not only still alive, but inclined to hang around backstage in the expectation of an open bottle of vodka. On one occasion he fell asleep in the theatre bar at the interval. When a barmaid shook him awake and tried to evict him, he protested 'But I'm Jeffrey Bernard!' 'Come off it,' replied the barmaid. 'Jeffrey Bernard is in there on that stage.' This time, sadly, I'll have no competition from Jeff himself, but Keith Waterhouse's hilarious comedy captures the essence of a glorious renegade and may well keep him alive for ever. Jeff lived life to excess - and for this play Keith has distilled his brilliant madness into one night trapped in The Coach and Horses pub in Soho where Jeff, armed with a bottle of vodka, revisits past loves and friends and enemies. It's an extraordinary celebration of life – hailed as one of the funniest evenings you can have in the theatre."
"Is taking a trip down memory lane by reviving a play about taking a trip down memory lane too much of a good thing? Almost. Jeffrey Bernard in Unwell is saved, however because Keith Waterhouse's writing, Jeffrey Bernard's columns, is absolutely unsentimental. Likewise, Tom Conti's wonderfully nuanced performance is just sly enough. Conti emerges, mole-like, at the opening of Jeffrey Bernard in Unwell and, at once, and quite consciously, seduces the audience as he first realises his predicament, then celebrates it, and finally tires of it." The Sunday Telegraph
"Is taking a trip down memory lane by reviving a play about taking a trip down memory lane too much of a good thing? Almost. It is saved, however, because Waterhouse's writing, like Bernard's columns, is absolutely unsentimental. Likewise, Tom Conti's wonderfully nuanced performance is just sly enough. Conti emerges, mole-like, at the opening of the play and, at once and quite consciously, seduces the audience as he first realises his predicament, then celebrates it, and finally tires of it. That's the real problem with the play: Bernard is wonderful and comforting company - you want to nick many of his anecdotes and his every riposte to both specific daily humiliations and the more profound absurdity of existence - and yet by the end you long to escape, to breathe fresh air and drink clean water and not dwell any longer on hopelessness, however amusing or true." The Sunday Telegraph
"What spoils Ned Sherrin's nifty production, for me, is that Tom Conti plays JB as if he wanted to be loved. This, I suspect, is because Conti himself likes being loved. He still has a core of steel, but over the years he's become the most flirtatious of actors. The performance is punctuated by conspiratorial smiles: the eyes scour the audience, dispensing ugliness and jollity, and asking for approval. The result doesn't do Keith Waterhouse's witty, gritty writing any favours. Still, it'll do well. Too many people like a cuddly actor." The Sunday Times
"Inexplicably revived with Tom Conti in the role as the legendary boozer and professional sloth who for years recorded his own downhill struggle through life in his Low Life column in The Spectator. Ned Sherrin's production smells of mothballs. Or is it chloroform? For Bernard is dead now, his beloved drinking dens of boho Soho are a bygone world and the piece is as out of date as last week's newspaper. Conti, brilliantly blurry and slurry, trips up on the same old step, time after time after time, and there's plenty to titter at. But to what end? For nostalgics and collectors only." The Mail on Sunday
Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell in London at the Garrick Theatre previewed from 12 June 2006, opened on 19 June 2006 and closed on 2 September 2006.