Tom Conti (pictured) wittily recounts drunken tales as he recreates his title performance in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, which opened on Monday (19 June 2006, previews from 12 June), for a limited 12-week season at the West End’s Garrick Theatre (See News, 12 May 2006).
Keith Waterhouse’s play is based around the recollections of the late Spectator writer Jeffrey Bernard, a legend in the bohemian London district of Soho, notorious for his womanising, gambling and drinking in the Coach and Horses pub.
Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell was last seen in the West End in a sell-out eight-week season at the Old Vic where Peter O'Toole had another go in the title role he had originated in 1989 at the Apollo Theatre, where Conti succeeded him. Ned Sherrin, who has directed all of the previous West End seasons of the play, directs again. This is Conti’s third time tackling the title role. He’s joined in the cast by Royce Mills, Elizabeth Payne, Tristan Gemmill and Nina Young.
While most still found Waterhouse’s play amusing, if dated, overnight critics inevitably held Conti’s more likeable performance up against Peter O’Toole’s original characterisation and some found it wanting by comparison.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com - “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell is set in the preferred Soho haunt of the old rogue, the Coach and Horses pub, lovingly reproduced on a tipsy angle by designer John Gunter: faded panelling, well-worn red leatherette stools and benches, cartoons on the wall. Jeff awakes from a bacchanalian slumber in the small hours of the morning. He’s locked in. Cue a lurch towards the vodka bottle, and a rambling trip down memory lane by the original Grumpy Old Man.” Coveney felt that Conti “plays Jeff for sympathy, something O’Toole never did. He winks at the audience. He ruffles his imposing thatch of grey black hair… He wants too much to be liked… This is, nonetheless, an immensely skilful performance, and Ned Sherrin’s production preserves the perfect vaudevillian tawdriness of his own original work.” He added: “With O’Toole, there was an ineradicable dignity to all this, and a tragic dimension to his creation of a classic English eccentric, one of the greatest comic characters of our day. Conti, entertaining and likeable, gives an expert guided tour of the premises.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “Pity Tom Conti, who last night tackled the role O’Toole unequivocally made his own, first in 1989 and twice in the 1990s — and inevitably came off a gallant second best… It’s a decent performance but not the great one his predecessor ended up giving… The play is essentially a monologue packed with reminiscence, anecdotes and wry rumination, though Royce Mills, Elizabeth Payne, Tristan Gemmill and Nina Young do put in appearances as drinking cronies, accusing wives and even Lester Piggott and Francis Bacon.” Nevertheless, said Nightingagle, “there’s laughter round every corner of Ned Sherrin’s production.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian - “Timing in art is everything; and one can only wonder at the wisdom of reviving, 17 years on, Keith Waterhouse's loving tribute to a Soho legend. And, although Tom Conti gives a good, unsentimental performance as the boozing Bernard, it is hard to banish memories of Peter O'Toole who invested the role with a Beckettian melancholy… Waterhouse craftily uses a quick-sketch format to show the promiscuous strangeness of Bernard's life and some of the items still make one laugh. But the play is also a paean to the ‘enchanted dungheap’ of Soho and one can't help feeling it is steeped in wistful romanticism… Conti has moments when he makes the role definably his own: his strange anger, as a journalist, at never being offered a staff appointment and his gentle terrorising of the front-stalls as prepares to execute a famous pub-trick with an egg, a biscuit-lid and a glass of water. But Conti, for all his skill, never makes you warm to the old toper in the manner of his predecessor. Ned Sherrin's production makes you feel the play has been reheated rather than genuinely rethought.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - “This autobiographical, meandering, dipsomaniac stream of consciousness show, which famously premiered in 1989, returns Tom Conti to the title role he suavely took over from Peter O'Toole. With the tousled, morose look of a shaggy-haired dog left out in the rain, a shambling gait and a lugubrious voice that sounds as pickled as a herring, Conti again revels in Bernard's inspissated gloom, clumsiness and eagerness to cast himself as a life-victim.” As far as De Jongh is concerned, the play “intermittently amuses in Ned Sherrin's spirited production” but “also makes me a bit angry. What a withering comment on our morally vacuous times it is that the one contemporary hack who has become a national figure and whose journalism has been given theatrical form is Bernard, a drunken columnist of few fixed, serious convictions, and not some great war correspondent or influential political commentator.” In the title role, “Conti's valiant, vigorous performance is not powered by the quality of exasperated desperation O'Toole achieved and which gave the show far more driving energy.” Still, De Jongh concluded, “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell is a bitter pill well worth swallowing.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “First time around, I adored this show. I was a trainee alcoholic myself, and Bernard was one of my heroes, a heroic boozer who turned in matchless copy, a tipsy walker on the wild side who transformed personal disaster into some of the funniest columns in British journalism. Revisiting the show now, after coming within an ace of wrecking my own life with alcohol, I find my reactions are rather different. For a start, I don't believe that Bernard was nearly as attractive as Waterhouse portrays him… I suspect Bernard, like most chronic drunks, was selfish, emotionally illiterate, vile-tempered and prone to panic attacks and dreadful depression. The portrait of alcoholism on offer here, full of tipsy hilarity and comic incident, is a seductive lie… While O'Toole appeared to be basing his performance on lived experience, the abstemious Conti, who followed O'Toole into the play the first time around, is clearly putting on a highly skilful act. He brilliantly captures the wary caution of the drunkard's gait, the slurred voice and the alcoholic tremor before the first few drinks of the day have been safely negotiated… But, with the play's hero not merely unwell but long since dead, the show now looks like a rather unseemly attempt to milk the cash cow one last time.”
- by Caroline Ansdell