Review: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, starring Robert Powell, Brighton Theatre Royal, Monday April 18-Saturday April 23

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.  at The Bath Theatre Royal . CREDIT Geraint Lewis

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. at The Bath Theatre Royal . CREDIT Geraint Lewis

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The old saying ‘if you remember the sixties you weren’t there’ could have been coined to describe Jeffrey Bernard’s life.

During Robert Powell’s sensational delivery of Keith Waterhouse’s play, currently at Brighton’s Theatre Royal, Jeffrey describes asking a friend what he was doing between 1960 and 1974.

A few people came up with the occasional reminiscence but he admitted the decade and a half was largely lost to him.

This play is not for the faint hearted.

From the opening expletives, ‘Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell’ is as politically incorrect as its creator – from chain-smoking on stage, Robert’s faultless on-stage assembly of a Bloody Mary, consumption of a bottle of vodka and the hilarious cat-racing exercise when Kempton Park was snowbound.

One of the funniest was ‘find the lady’ played with the triplet boy and girl babies of a friend.

‘Who’ll have a fiver on the one in the middle?’ - all in the best possible taste, and all true.

The great characters who frequented The French Pub, The Coach and Horses and the Colony are lovingly remembered: Muriel Belcher, (“Are you a member? No? Then **** off.”,) Lucian Freud, Brendan Behan, Francis Bacon, Waterhouse himself.

There’s a heart-stopping biscuit-lid/pint glass/match case/egg stunt (Powell could find himself a job as a magician’s assistant) but he’s guaranteed lifelong career security after this seamless performance.

Jonathan Meades decribed Jeffrey’s Spectator column as ‘a suicide note in weekly episodes.’

He was happy to bask in the limelight created by the runaway success of this play which helped to ease his financial worries but eventually his nemesis – drink – caught up with him and he died in 1997 suffering from diabetes, pancreatis, renal failure and the amputation of his right leg, having survived, amazingly, in his 66th year.

In spite of the underlying sadness which underpinned Jeffrey’s life, this is a sparking, rapid-fire, warm, sharply observed and witty play.

Robert Powell is a true stage actor and his delivery responded to the tsunami of appreciation which swelled from Monday’s packed house.

It was hard to see who was enjoying it all more – the audience or the principal actor.

He was more than ably supported by a quick-change cast of four who appeared as policemen, magistrates, judges, ex-wives, gamblers, bookies and Lester Piggott.

Piggott was approached by a stable lad who asked for £1 for doing his horse. ‘Can’t hear, deaf in that ear, Piggott said.

The lad walked round, and whispered in the other ear: “Two pounds please for doing your ‘orse.” Piggott replied: “Go round to the one pound ear again.”

Priceless.