Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell

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A night at the theatre in London’s West End is not always an evening of total entertainment: the ticket price, the discomfort of the seats, the warm G&T at the interval. But here’s an easy way to experience a play that was murder to get a ticket for when it was playing at the Old Vic.

An affectionate tribute to professional drunk Jeffrey Bernard, it is the ultimate “stagey” film – as in we are literally watching the performance on the stage of the Apollo (where the play had its London debut), with a live audience, boomy acoustics, the lot.

It’s perfect for fans of high-grade thespianism, louche yarns, ridiculous japes and, of course Peter O’Toole, playing Jeff – infamous Soho boozer and, between 1975 and 1997, writer of the “Low Life” column for the magazine The Spectator, which would print the one line apology “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” when he was too drunk to file, which was often.

What we’re watching is the lightly fictionalised string of events leading up to one of these one-liners, a night when Jeff finds himself accidentally locked in the Coach And Horses, the infamous Soho pub where he held court.

Over the next 90 minutes, during which O’Toole holds the stage with a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, and with help from a handful of support players – fleshing out the stories being spun from memory and imagination – we’re treated to rambling from an almost incoherent old soak well into his anecdotage.

It’s not everyone’s idea of fun. Yet star O’Toole, stage director Ned Sherrin and writer Keith Waterhouse turn what is potentially torture into a joyous and very funny affirmation of the indomitability of the human spirit. Well, some kind of spirit, at least.

And when O’Toole finally grinds to a halt after one of those performances that remind us again how important theatre is to the craft of many British film stars – command is the word – there’ll probably be a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Whether there’s a drink in your hand is entirely up to you.

Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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