Tom Conti has had over 15 years to learn his lines, so why does he continue to fluff them? Cues were fumbled, lines were missed, the delivery was messy and key swearwords were dropped in favour of more reserved language; not at all what one expects from a play about one of Old Soho’s most colourful characters getting locked in his favourite pub overnight.
Perhaps these faults were intended to add a sense of realism? Much has been made of the fact that, now that the actual Jeffrey Bernard has popped his clogs, the actors have been allowed to 'focus on the darker aspects of Bernard's life.' But wait, didn't Peter O'Toole star in a rapturously received revival of this play in 1999, two years after Bernard's death? There didn't appear to be anything wrong with sticking to the script as written then.
Throughout this evening's performance Conti played it for laughs (at one stage repeating a tired pratfall several times, safe in the knowledge that, out of politeness, the audience would continue to roar with mirth at him, because He's Tom Conti). The presence of a fourth wall is essential in this play because it features many soliloquies from the Bernard character, ruminating on his friends and his misfortunes. (When Norman the landlord – the Godot of this play – is finally reached on the telephone, he asks Jeff what the hell he has been doing in his pub all night. Bernard replies along the lines, "drinking your vodka and pondering the meaning of life.") At several instances during the performance, Conti destroyed any sense of voyeurism Keith Waterhouse had intended by directly addressing individual audience members (most memorably during the fêted 'raw egg' trick).
Some of the funnier jokes went un-laughed at thanks to Conti's inept sense of comic timing. When he was alive himself, the real-life Bernard criticised Conti's performance as having 'no sympathy' with the character. According to this week's Time Out, Tom Conti intends to stand as the Conservative candidate in 2008's London Mayoral elections. There's got to be a moral in there somewhere, but we're buggered if we can work out what it is.
The supporting cast were mostly terrible (one actress appeared to fall asleep on stage prior to curtain-down at the end of the first act), ditching diffident, reserved performances in favour of brash, ridiculous ones. Nina Young gave a completely over-the-top, cartoonish delivery of what was supposed to be a genuinely moving letter from an ex-Mrs Bernard. However, Royce Mills – a veteran of this play from its original run in the early '90s – was a sheer delight to watch from start to finish. His turns as a wildly eccentric 'cat racer' and the Joe Pasquale-voiced artist Francis Bacon are worth the admission price alone.
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell is playing at the Garrick Theatre on the Charing Cross Road until 2nd September.
Image from quinnums' Flickr photostream