First Night Review: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

When I find myself in a (non-matinee) audience surrounded by white hair and bald heads, I cannot help but ask myself: is this really a play for me? 

Such was my concern at the opening of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, essentially a two-hour lock-in in late 1980s Soho, spent reminiscing with the notorious drinker, gambler, womaniser, and sometimes journalist, of the play’s title.

The pub-interior scenery, alive with detail, prepared me for something like the recording of a sitcom, which was not at all the case, as the characters of Bernard’s anecdotes sprang from corners like invoked spirits, to colour and illustrate his words. Racing through various accents, voices, costumes, wigs and walks, the cast of only five skilfully evoke the entire population of Jeffrey Bernard’s London and beyond.

Although several references were lost on me (Lester Pigot, I hardly knew you) Jeffrey Bernard nevertheless makes an engaging protagonist, by no means alien. I could well imagine him stumbling into an episode of Black Books, lighting up a cigarette and defying anyone to drink more than himself.

Robert Powell’s stamina in the lead role was tremendous. I was impressed with his ‘drunk’ acting – not as easy as it sounds – that was undermined at first by the articulate confidence of his voice, implicitly revealing his prestigious acting experience, but I quickly and gratefully changed my mind when I realised he would be narrating for the next two hours, and a slur might lose its novelty before the clock at the bar reached 7am.

As Jeffrey Bernard plies himself with endless cigarettes and alcohol, Waterhouse’s play maintains an inexhaustible flow of jokes, anecdotes, puns, and ‘proper’ swearing – not a single white hair flinched at the ‘f*cks and c*cks’ flying about, and I ate my words (thankfully not Jeffrey Bernard’s) about this play being for oldies only.

Made interesting by the anachronistic feel for which it could also be criticised, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell literally passes the time, as we wait for the landlord to arrive and rescue our anti-hero. This play is worth watching for the actors’ spectacular performances, and the execution of a pub trick that I shan’t attempt – at Bernard’s advice – until I am 50 years old and plastered with booze.