Trapped in the Coach and Horses pub overnight, Fleet Street hack Jeffrey Bernard regales us with stories from his chaotic but never boring life. He makes the saloon bar his home, almost literally - he doesn’t really have anywhere else to go after being kicked out by yet another woman, and he’s carting his possessions around in a battered suitcase and a couple of carrier bags.
When it was written thirty years ago, this script was very much about Bernard and his dissolute but entertaining ways; but as it ages, it becomes a fascinating period piece about the last years of old Soho, where the low life mixed with figures such as Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon. Low Life was in fact the name of Jeffrey Bernard’s column in the Spectator (in contrast to Taki’s High Life), where the phrase “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” would regularly appear when he was too incapacitated to turn in his copy.
The real Jeffrey Bernard is beginning to move out of collective memory, so Phil Malkin is freed from having to do an impersonation. Malkin is an actor who, on stage at least, is comfortable around a pub; in previous Sudden Impulse productions we’ve seen him behind a bar and as a bouncer. He gives us a man who is at heart a raconteur and storyteller, who loves (and hates) all the ridiculous characters he hangs out with - the grumpy landlords, the terrible actors, and the wives he can never relate to. But most of all, he loves gambling and drinking.
There are a few verbal stumbles, though I doubt that Jeffrey Bernard himself was always entirely fluent, and when Malkin moved to the side of the stage by the table he was stepping out of range of the stage lights. But this is a play that relies on a strong central performance, and we’re in good hands with a very accomplished performer. He captures both Bernard’s hopelessness and his charm; it’s no surprise he was married four times.
With its eponymous title, it is a shock to discover it is not a one-man show - but much of the colour is supplied by the supporting cast, as Sam Asbury and Eleanor Charman play multiple delightful cameos to illustrate Bernard’s tales. Charman appears as a multitude of disappointed women and a somewhat disappointed judge, while Asbury has a wonderful range of landlords, policemen, enemies, and cronies with which he has enormous fun.
Jeffrey Bernard is a man from a different time. Nowadays we may see him as a tragic figure, but he lived his life the way he wanted to, for better or for worse. Sudden Impulse’s new adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s play gives us a funny, worn, but defiant Jeffrey Bernard.