Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell review: Cold Feet's Robert Bathurst is a funny and poignant old soak
You can get a boozy taste of old Soho at the actual pub where the 1989 play is set in a funny night that never gets too misty-eyed ★★★★
The Coach and Horses, the famous West End boozer associated with many a dewlapped patron, legendary drinking session, Private Eye lunch and also, of course, down-at-heel Spectator journalist Jeffrey Bernard is under threat.
The current landlords are facing eviction by a huge brewery and as part of their campaign to keep it in local hands they have hit on the idea of reviving Keith Waterhouse’s famous 1989 play in the actual venue where it’s set.
The oft-revived work, culled from lines of Bernard’s own journalism, imagines the cantankerous old soak locked into the pub having fallen asleep in the gents. As he tries to rouse its famous (and even grumpier) landlord Norman Balon he reflects on his life (which at the time the play was written was still being lived – Bernard died in 1997) and many loves.
It’s a role made famous by Peter O’Toole, and latterly Tom Conti among others, but tumbling onto the floor of the pub this time is the rather unlikely figure of Cold Feet actor Robert Bathurst.
Bathurst’s comic timing is pretty good and it’s an impressive effort on his part to play it all solo (this play does feature other characters including Bernard’s former lovers and an uptight customs officer, but we hear them as recordings – Stephen Fry voices the customs officer).
And while it’s hard to imagine the polite and refined Bathurst blotto and clutching drunkenly to a toilet bowl on a cigarette-strewn floor, he rises to the challenge admirably. We may have lost the diverting drama of his interactions with other characters but the experience of feeling we are locked in the pub with Bernard - the actual pub from the play – is exhilarating enough.
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Waterhouse’s text is also very funny and potent, replete with a rat-a-tat arsenal of quick-fire lines. One story concerns the time a nurse asked Bernard (during one of his many stays in hospital) why he keeps on drinking and his reply is “to stop me from jogging.” In another moment he delivers a mock obituary of himself, reflecting that he came to Soho in the 1940s’s and "from that moment... was never to look forward".
Fortunately, though, Bathurst doesn’t just make it a string of witticisms. And he also doesn’t lose sight of the almost Beckettian seam of sadness that runs through a life of addictions, four failed marriages and essential loneliness. It’s not for nothing that Bernard’s "Low Life" Spectator column was once described as “a suicide note in weekly instalments”; and however much this play is essentially Bernard justifying his life and lifestyle to the audience, Bathurst never loses sight of the pity of his essential and undeniable death wish.
So as a snapshot of the times, as a tribute to what Bernard called the "enchanted dungheap" of old Soho, it’s hard to beat – beautiful without being too misty-eyed.
Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from May 7 to June 9 at the Coach and Horses pub in Greek Street, London W1. You can buy tickets online here