JEFFREY BERNARD IS UNWELL at The Coach and Horses, Soho
“Bathurst’s performance is a tour de force, capturing the pure essence of the wayward, accidental hero”
Jeffrey Bernard was a prolific writer. He was a prolific talker, drinker, gambler and womaniser too. But despite arriving each morning at the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, grey-faced and trembling, waiting for the doors to open, he managed to keep up (mostly) his contributions to the Spectator; his weekly “Low Life” columns eventually reaching four figures. Publishers naturally hovered with lucrative offers for his autobiography. When Faber dangled the juiciest carrot, Bernard placed an advert in The Spectator asking if any of its readers ‘could tell me what I was doing between 1960 to 1974?’. He never took the plunge, however, although he did write a spoof obituary of himself which epitomised the acute, self-deprecatory wit found in his columns.
Using the text from the Spectator “Low Life” columns, Keith Waterhouse’s play “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” opened in 1989 triumphantly starring Bernard’s friend and drinking companion Peter O’Toole. The Coach and Horses could well have been the rehearsal room. It is fitting, and also a masterstroke of theatricality, to stage a revival in the very pub where Bernard would prop up the bar by day, and by night.
Like the writing, the Coach and Horses on Greek Street conveys a bygone era. Photos on the walls commemorate the late and the great Bernard, cigarettes pile up in ashtrays and Double Diamond is advertised above the bar. Into the crowded room, Robert Bathurst’s Jeffrey Bernard comes crashing through the bar at five in the morning, having fallen asleep in the gents at closing time the previous night. Half-heartedly trying to get hold of the landlord to come and unlock the doors for him, he spends the next hour alternating between the vodka optic and regaling us with hilarious anecdotes. As he paces the bar, the prose trips off his tongue in flourishes of searing wit. Bathurst’s performance is a tour de force, capturing the pure essence of the wayward, accidental hero.
“Bathurst delivers the stories with brilliant insight”
The play’s title is lifted from the heading frequently used by the Spectator magazine to explain the absence of any writing; a euphemism of course. The context is rigidly set in a Soho that no longer exists and may lay itself open to accusations of being dated or insensitive to modern morals. We know what our protagonist would make of that and thankfully we would all still salute him. Even stand him a drink – if he wasn’t continually helping himself already.
James Hillier’s staging significantly cuts back the original text, but seemingly doesn’t cheat on the sharp-witted punchlines that accentuate each anecdote. Bernard had no qualms about making himself the target of his verbal attacks. He knew what he was, so there is no room for judgement nor shame, and absolutely no space for self-pity. Bathurst is well aware of the setting, and this honesty comes through unfiltered – the master raconteur that he is. He easily draws us into the world peopled by drunks, layabouts, criminals but also the likes of Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud. Never sentimental, it is a love-letter – even a eulogy – to a bohemian Soho. A Soho that was dying at the same rate as Bernard himself in the closing decades of the twentieth century.
Aged fourteen, he made his first visit to Soho in 1946, and from that point he “never looked forward”. The life he led had perhaps fewer highs than lows, but it was, in his own words, “full of adventure and excess, and I wouldn’t change a single thing.” Bathurst delivers the stories with brilliant insight. We see the cragginess of a loveable rogue and laugh out loud. But we also glimpse the fallout. A short scene in Bernard’s hospital bed is surreally moving, as it resounds with metaphors, as though we are at the “bedside of a dying Soho, holding its hand wondering whether it is kinder to switch off the life support”.
The Coach and Horses has survived a corporate takeover in recent years and still retains its character. It is the perfect setting for this revival of the play, and with Bathurst as the host everyone is going to want to be a regular at the bar. So, get your round in quick.
JEFFREY BERNARD IS UNWELL at the Coach and Horses, Soho
Reviewed on 5th February 2024
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Tom Howard
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