Theatre: Jeffrey Bernard is just swell

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Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

Old Vic, London

There are at least three Jeffrey Bernards. There was the journalist- about-town whom people remember with a mixture of feelings. There was the Spectator-columnist persona upon which Keith Waterhouse has based . And then there is the role that, 10 years ago, Peter O'Toole turned into a magnificent star vehicle. That last Jeffrey Bernard is back.

Life can deal few better cards to a journalist than to have your own richly flawed character presented on stage by O'Toole. A drunk and a gambler, regularly fired by editors and wives, Bernard emerges as a noble wreck, a figure of sensitivity and grace, who heroically gives the finger to damp and dogged killjoys, puritans and busybodies.

O'Toole returns to the Old Vic, where he played Hamlet in 1964 and where I first saw him - 19 years ago - as a blood-soaked Macbeth. That time his performance was critically savaged. This time the response was satisfyingly different. At the second curtain call, O'Toole was sitting on one of the bar stools on the set. He was the only person in the theatre that I could see sitting down. Everyone else was standing and cheering.

Even when this very funny play opened in the West End in the 1980s, it had an elegiac quality. Soho seemed to be a vanishing world, a topsy- turvy place that prized most of the activities that law-abiding, penny- saving, sherry-sipping Britain would cross the street to avoid. But the runaway success of the play was a complicating factor in our reaction to the self-proclaimed failures of its central character. Real life made the play out of date. Bernard's columns kept appearing, and he could be sighted in the foyer drinking up the applause.

Bernard died in 1997 but the play hasn't dated; it has deepened. This is no longer a person you could meet: this is a dramatic character with a point of view. It's still an odd experience on the first night to see people who feature in the play sitting in the stalls. Half a dozen rows in front of me sat Norman Balon, the landlord at the legendary Coach and Horses, who ranks as the most important off-stage character since Godot. O'Toole keeps shouting out "Norman!" The man himself is sitting 10 yards away.

The set up is basic: O'Toole wakes up in the Coach and Horses to discover that he has been locked in. Very, very quietly O'Toole cries "Help!", and then proceeds to pour himself a vodka. He makes repeated attempts to phone the landlord. In between, he smokes, drinks, recalls dead friends, relives moments and ponders absurdities he has read about in the paper.

Inverting cliches is a staple trick of journalism, and Bernard was one of its best exponents. It's the mainspring of his humour. His life, he tells us, is a downhill struggle. He drinks to stop himself from jogging. When he moves to the country, all those trees "drain the spirit". It's a Wildean gift for paradox that stems from a sustained outlook: simply put, there's no link between hard work and happiness. If you wade through the hundreds of pages of The Penguin Book of Columnists, his pieces - along with George Orwell's and Auberon Waugh's - retain their freshness and attack. The thoughts keep moving along and never lock themselves into the puffed-up conceits of "humorous" writing.

As they grew older, O'Toole and Bernard came to resemble each other more and more. O'Toole's Bernard is a wonderfully fragile, ravaged and spindly creature. It would be hard to find another place in his trouser legs to put a crease. O'Toole has mastered the art - he probably invented the art - of the precisely articulated slur. He carries long sentences in the air, accelerating through the middle sections with the speed of a racing commentator, and then gently alighting on a final phrase. He is especially fond of telling long and involved stories with a cigarette trembling on the edge of his lips.

My one regret is that he needed to be miked, as the rest of the cast then have to be too. Ned Sherrin directs the same team as last time: Royce Mills, Timothy Ackroyd, Sarah Berger and Annabel Leventon sketch in dozens of characters with the same rapidity with which they change in and out of costumes.

Bernard once explained his column's popularity by saying that people like to read about "someone who is in deeper shit than they are". In O'Toole's hands, Bernard goes beyond that. From Lawrence of Arabia to Jeffrey of Soho, there runs a tradition of Romantic individualism. But that's enough praise. The last thing gamblers and drunks need is the approval of broadsheet critics. It's unlikely that anyone trying to lead Bernard's kind of life would have enough money left to go the theatre to see how it's done. While any theatregoers tempted by O'Toole's enchanting performance to take up a life of drinking should try the wine that is served during the interval. That'll put them off.

Old Vic, SE1 (0171 494 5491), to 25 September