Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (review)

There have been some great characters in British journalism who existed during a more affluent time when expense accounts were seemingly bottomless, drinks could be bought on tick, and days could be lost seeing contacts and imbibing the contents of El Vinos or The Groucho Club before it was necessary to turn in any copy.

Authors are told to write what they know and Keith Waterhouse wasn’t short of material. He knew the inside of the pubs around Fleet Street and Soho and he was a great pal of Jeffrey Bernard, a sometime writer (when sober enough to string a sentence together) at The Sporting Life and The Spectator (until sacked), raconteur and alcoholic.

Thus the hilarious comedy Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell was born and quite brilliantly performed by the Frayed Knot Theatre Company at The Court Theatre, Tring, last week.

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The title comes from the apology printed by The Spectator when the eccentric JB missed a deadline. The story is set in Soho’s Coach and Horses pub where the inveterate boozer has passed out – only to wake at 5am to find himself locked in (heaven for a drinker with a seemingly unquenchable thirst).

He, therefore, whiles away the hours until he can rouse the landlord, by delivering a stupendous monologue to the audience about his pub crawl through life. Four other actors make guest appearances as various characters from the past but this is very much a play dominated by just one man.

I saw the play recently at Milton Keynes Theatre with Robert Powell as JB but I have to say that Frayed Knot’s Simon Hill made the part his own. He has a real future as an alcoholic bon viveur and writer should he ever hit the skids and need a new bar stool to inhabit (that’s if lung cancer doesn’t get him first – I suffered, during the show, from inhaling secondary smoke after Hill’s chain-smoking performance!).

Hill had beautiful diction, dressed like the former gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, and delivered a rollicking good turn as the horse-racing, vodka swilling, much married, sometime hack.

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The big drawback with staging a play like this is that 90 per cent of the population have never heard of Jeffrey Bernard. In fact it is unlikely that he was known at all outside Soho and the nation’s racetracks. Someone like me, who has worked with quite a few JBs over the years, couldn’t wait to see it – but there were an awfully large number of empty seats on opening night.

This was a great pity because it has impeccable credentials. It is one of the funniest comedies ever written, from the pen of one of the country’s top writers, and it was a sensationally good production, staged by a company which is one of the best am-dram groups in the region.

Hill, who is on stage for the entire two-hour show, had a huge amount of dialogue to learn and, give him credit, he pulled it off.

Playing drunk is one of the hardest acts to achieve without it looking fake and the leading man made it look effortless .

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Andy Faber, Roger Emery, Jenny Giles and Sue Templar added to the laughs with a catalogue of characters who had the misfortune of becoming entangled in Bernard’s shambolic existence.

I raise a glass to Frayed Knot. I enjoyed every minute of it.

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