Theatre: The drinking man's crumpled

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The Independent Culture
THE LATE Jeffrey Bernard is alive and unwell again on the stage of the Old Vic. By a droll irony that its subject would surely have relished, the decision to remount Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell - Keith Waterhouse's excellent 1989 play about the author of The Spectator's Low Life ("a suicide note in weekly instalments") - was taken two years ago at Bernard's funeral. On its first outing, a comically rueful recognition of mortality and decline gave depth, you'll remember, to a show which finds Bernard - heroic boozer, gambler and womaniser - locked for the night in his favourite Soho pub, the Coach and Horses. As he plies himself with Norman's vodka and chronicles, through a stream of hilarious anecdotes, a life devoted to stylish self- destruction, he even extemporises a mock-obituary of himself ("In 1946, he paid his first visit to Soho and from that point he was never to look forward...") and waxes elegiac about the Soho characters who have gone the way of all pickled flesh.

Now that the Eternal Landlord has called final Closing Time for Bernard, too, the play - which once again stars an incomparably funny and glancingly tragic Peter O'Toole - can't help but feel a shade darker and more melancholic. But seeing Ned Sherrin's adroit production for a second time, you appreciate how this play will help to immortalise Bernard as an attractive minor member of that pantheon - including Rochester, Byron and Wilde - whom we simultaneously view as Awful Warnings and envy for the fearless, undeceived wit with which they hurtle down the Royal road of excess to ruination.

Elegantly raddled and looking like a louchely disreputable unmade bed, O'Toole gives the performance that, in its squiffy hauteur, is a wonderful mix of the rackety and the fastidious. This is just right for the part, since it is entirely characteristic that when, say, Bernard contemplates the prospect of dying "choked on one's own vomit", it is not the event that disgusts him, but the idiocy of the phrasing: "When did you hear of anyone choking on someone else's vomit?" Sipping endless cigarettes like some Wildean cynic and sending his voice on great arcs of gentle amazement, O'Toole is a master of the hilariously timed withering or incredulous pause. There is certainly plenty of opportunity for these here, as Bernard, in acted-out vignettes, is assailed by pious prats who contend that "you only get out of life what you put into it" or by raving cranks like the gambler who, when horse-racing is cancelled during a cold snap, starts a bizarre alternative betting game with cats.

The farce and the sadness of Bernard's life are superbly brought out by Waterhouse's invented situation - our hero, currently between flats, having to make a literal home overnight of the bar that is his home-from- home. As well as the wit of the man, O'Toole communicates the courage, the moral acumen and, at moments, the frightening physical frailty. "What an amazing jemmy to the door of the mind is a few large vodkas," reflects Bernard towards the end. Let's hope that wherever he is propped up now, someone is standing him a large one.

To 25 September, 0171 928 7616. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper