First Night: Same again please, as Jeffrey Bernard returns to the bar

`Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell' Old Vic London

THE LATE Jeffrey Bernard is alive and unwell again on the stage of the Old Vic in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

In a droll irony that its subject would surely have relished, the decision to remount Keith Waterhouse's excellent 1989 play about the author of the Spectator Low Life columns ("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 to a show that finds Bernard - heroic boozer, gambler and womaniser - locked for the night in his favourite Soho pub, the Coach and Horses.

As he chronicles, through a stream of hilarious anecdotes, a life devoted to stylish self- destruction, he 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 pickled flesh. Now that the Eternal Landlord has called closing time for Bernard, too, the play - which once again stars the incomparably funny and emotionally layered 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 bunch - which includes Rochester, Byron and Wilde - whom we simultaneously view as Awful Warnings and envy for the undeceived, fearless wit with which they hurtle down the road of excess to ruination.

Elegantly raddled and looking like a disreputably unmade bed, O'Toole gives a performance that, in its squiffy hauteur, is a wonderful mix of the rackety and the fastidious.

Puffing on endless cigarettes like some fallen-down Wildean cynic, he's a master of the brilliantly timed withering or amazed pause - for which there is plenty of opportunity here, as Bernard 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 gambling addict who, when horse-racing is cancelled during a cold snap, starts an alternative betting game with cats.

Waterhouse's bright idea of presenting Bernard, between flats, and trapped overnight in a pub where he unpacks his mementoes, allows you to appreciate the essential homelessness of a boozer on this scale. As well as the wit of the man, O'Toole communicates the sadness and the moral acumen.

"What an amazing jemmy to the door of the mind is a few large vodkas," opines Bernard towards the end of the play, during which he canes the best part of a bottle. Let's hope that wherever he is propped up now, someone is standing him a large one.

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