Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, Garrick Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

You can't keep a good man down, and there's no denying Jeffrey Bernard, either. The man himself is no longer around, alas, to fall asleep at his own performance or cadge drinks in the interval from paying customers. But Tom Conti, who succeeded Peter O'Toole in 1990 as the legendary Soho sot, and played him again at the Old Vic in 1999, is on hand once again to lead us through the colourful vaudeville of jaundiced Jeff's japes.

Keith Waterhouse, who based his play on first-hand memories of the man, and on Bernard's own columns in The Spectator (the legend of the play's title used to appear with almost monotonous regularity at the foot of a stand-in's prose), had the wheeze of unleashing the monster at dead of night in the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, central London, where Bernard frittered away many of his days.

Once roused from comatose slumber, Bernard realises he is locked in, and the landlord, Norman Balon, unobtainable (although the now retired Balon, "the rudest landlord in London", was in the stalls on opening night). Shakily reaching for the vodka bottle, he unpacks the suitcase of misspent middle age, with hair-raising tales of marital disasters, Soho scrapes and gambling excesses.

The play ripples with ingenious ironies. Bernard's mother was an opera singer and one of his short-lived jobs was as a stage-hand at Covent Garden. His father designed the Lyons Cornerhouse tea shops where Bernard worked as a dish-washer. Not only do we get a close-up of the vanished Soho of Francis Bacon, Frank Norman, No-Knickers Joyce and Muriel Belcher, the foul-mouthed hostess of the Colony drinking club, perched on her stool like a raven; we also get a vivid snapshot of crazily obsessive behaviour where chronic gamblers are reduced to playing Find the Lady with newborn tri-plets, or betting on a cat race in Battersea.

The linen-suited Conti, hair ruffled in a too healthy-looking thatch, leads us through this with an oddly inappropriate amiability. Whereas O'Toole was aristocratic in his seediness, imperious in his misanthropy, creating a comic monster with a tragic dimension, Conti is more hapless and ingratiating. His hands shake like leaves on an autumnal tree, and his eyes are blackened with debauchery, but Conti seems to think he should play all this for sympathy. He does so very well, but he knobbles the show.

Booking until 2 September (0870 890 1104)