The Barn Theatre, Southwick Community Centre.
June 28, 29, 30 – July 1, 2006.
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
by Keith Waterhouse
Bob Ryder – Jeffrey Bernard
Lyn Fernee – Journalists, Poets, Wives, Girlfriends, Thespians, Bores, Publicans, Sinners, Policemen, Waiters, Friends, Neighbours, Jockeys, Trainers, Punters, Tarts, Taxmen, Magistrates, Doctors, Nurses, Artists, Drunks, etc. etc.
David Bickers – Journalists, Poets, Wives, Girlfriends, Thespians, Bores, Publicans, Sinners, Policemen, Waiters, Friends, Neighbours, Jockeys, Trainers, Punters, Tarts, Taxmen, Magistrates, Doctors, Nurses, Artists, Drunks, etc. etc.
Kate Brownings – Journalists, Poets, Wives, Girlfriends, Thespians, Bores, Publicans, Sinners, Policemen, Waiters, Friends, Neighbours, Jockeys, Trainers, Punters, Tarts, Taxmen, Magistrates, Doctors, Nurses, Artists, Drunks, etc. etc.
David Peaty – Journalists, Poets, Wives, Girlfriends, Thespians, Bores, Publicans, Sinners, Policemen, Waiters, Friends, Neighbours, Jockeys, Trainers, Punters, Tarts, Taxmen, Magistrates, Doctors, Nurses, Artists, Drunks, etc. etc.
Stage Manager – David Comber
Technical Stage Manager – John Garland
ASM – Olive Smith
Lighting – Mike Medway
Properties – Margaret Davy
Properties – Sue Whittaker
Wardrobe – Margaret Pierce
Wardrobe – Cherry Briggs
Workshop Team – David Collis
Workshop Team – David Comber
Workshop Team – Sylvie Walder
Workshop Team – Nicki Moston
Workshop Team – Sheila Neesham
Workshop Team – Mark Flower
Workshop Team – Tony Holmes
Workshop Team – Tracey Holmes
Workshop Team – Philip Oliver
Workshop Team – Robert Mitchell
Publicity & Design – Rosemary Bouchy
Publicity & Design – Rosemary Brown
Publicity & Design – Anna Barden
Publicity & Design – Judith Berrill
Front of House – Betty Dawes
Box Office – Mark Flower
Programme Note #1: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
“Jeffrey Bernard was a legendary figure in Soho through the 1950s till his death in 1997. He somehow succeeded in immortalising his own chaotic lifestyle in a long-running weekly column, Low Life, originally in the New Statesman from 1973, before moving on to The Spectator in 1975. It chronicled his daily round of boozing, gambling and general dissipation, much of it evidenced at his infamous Soho local, the Coach and Horses. Jeff was often too far gone to produce the weekly column, on which occasions the magazine would print the classic notice ‘Jeffrey Bernard is unwell’. But his column did appear over a remarkable stretch of years, leading one witty commentator to call it “the longest suicide note in history”.
Keith Waterhouse knew Jeff well and had the brilliant idea of weaving a play from the material in The Spectator columns. He also conjured up a nostalgic picture of the boozy, bohemian Soho that’s now gone, featuring some of the highly colourful characters who Bernard rubbed shoulders with [‘usually in the gutter’ as he once put it]. Since it first appeared in 1989, the play has proved remarkably popular. Peter O’Toole, who also knew Bernard well, was in the first production and reprised the rôle to enormous acclaim in 1999, soon after Jeff’s long-inevitable demise.
Long before then, the fiction had taken over from the fact. One night when he was sitting sozzled in the stalls bar of the Apollo Theatre during a performance of the play, Jeff was confronted by the House Manager, who tried to eject him. “But I’m Jeffrey Bernard”, he pleaded. “You can’t be”, came the reply, “he’s up there on stage”!
Publicity #1: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Publication: The Courier
Publication Data: June 2006 issue – page 6
Text Header: ‘Sick’ man of the Coach and Horses keeps the booze and laughs flowing
FIVE o’clock in the morning and the bar at the Coach and Horses is dark and empty. Or is it?
Locked into his favourite Soho pub, Jeffrey Bernard wakes up after a heavy night on the booze and so begins Wick Theatre Company’s next comedy offering – Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Based by author Keith Waterhouse on Jeff’s contributions to the “Low Life” column of the Spectator magazine, this is a gloriously funny and sometimes poignant piece of theatre. On the frequent occasions when Jeff was incapable of producing his column, the editor would print the apology – “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell”.
When Jeff crawls out from under a bar table and finds himself alone and locked in, he settles down to drink, smoke and reminisce. And we hear the story of his life, his loves, his friends and his vices. To help him tell the tale, all kinds of colourful characters appear as if by magic.
It seems that Jeff has been turned out of his digs, and his belongings have been stored behind the bar. He brings them out and proceeds to unpack bit by bit, laying out photographs on the tables and finally making the place look as if he has set up home. He even manages to find an ironing board to press his clean shirt.
A highly experienced cast is headed by Bob Ryder, pictured left, as Jeffrey Bernard. Katie Brownings, Lyn Fernee, David Peaty and David Bickers are kept busy playing poets, journalists, wives and girlfriends, politicians, trainers and jockeys, bores, artists, doctors and nurses, tax-men, drunks, tarts – all the characters who flit in and out as Jeff recounts his memories. Pat Lyne directs.
Performances at the Barn Theatre, Southwick Street, Southwick, run from Wednesday, June 28, to Saturday, July 1, starting at 7.45pm. Tickets cost £7 each, from the box office on 01273 597094.
Review #1: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Publication: Shoreham Herald
Publication Data: Unknown
Reviewer: Sam Woodman
Text Header: Unknown
Author Keith Waterhouse’s play is currently enjoying revival at London’s Garrick Theatre and, last week, the Coach and Horses was recreated at the Barn Theatre, Southwick.
After crawling out from under a bar table, Jeff finds himself alone and settles down to drink and smoke his way through the night, casting his memory back over his life. Jeff is visited by countless friends, colleagues, wives, nurses, tipsters, judges and jockeys, who help tell his tale. Bob Ryder shone in the title rôle, ably supported by Lyn Fernee, David Bickers, Kate Brownings and David Peaty, who played the numerous figures from Jeff’s life. The show was performed in the round, rather than on stage, involving the audience more and bringing them closer to the action, as if they were sat at the table with Jeff himself.
Thought provoking, interesting, entertaining, funny, sad, wry, poignant … directed by Patricia Lyne, the show was all of the above and nobody left the theatre disappointed. Wick’s Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell was an accomplished production. Everyone involved can feel rightly proud.
Review #2: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Publication: Brighton Argus
Publication Data: Unknown
Reviewer: Barrie Jerram
Text Header: Unknown
Jeffrey may be unwell but his spirit is well and truly alive and kicking in Keith Waterhouse’s vibrant telling of the life of Bernard, a journalist by trade and a barfly-bohemian by life style. A larger than life character, he found his spiritual home – the spirit being vodka – in the pubs of his beloved Soho, until dying of renal failure in 1997. One particular pub, The Coach and Horses, is the setting for this wonderfully funny play where, waking from a drunken stupor at five in the morning he discovers that he is locked in. Between attempts to contact the pub’s landlord to release him he regales the audience with incidents from his colourful life.
The play is virtually a monologue, fleshed out with an assortment of characters that appear ghost-like on stage to enact the incidents he is recalling. Amongst the many hilarious incidents related, one that tickled the audience most described cat racing, a past time invented by desperate gamblers when horse racing was abandoned during a long winter spell. The central character is a wonderful rôle for an actor but it is also a tough challenge. Happily in this production by the Wick Theatre Company they were blessed by the talent and skill of Bob Ryder, whose portrayal of Bernard was masterful. Not only did he extract the full humour from this comic-tragic figure – the tragedy being self-inflicted – but he also brought out the man’s vulnerability, notably when reflecting on the deaths of so many friends and companions.
Ryder was given wonderful support from the quartet of actors that play the assorted wives, mistresses, drunks and tarts etc. that Bernard’s imagination has peopled the stage with. It would be an injustice not to give credit to their individual contributions. From a wide range of characters played by Kate Brownings, the foul-mouthed owner of the drinking club, a blousy sexpot and a wheezing old lady stand out in the memory. Her performance was sheer comic delight. Lyn Ferne’s talent brought variety to her assortment of rôles, many of them as Bernard’s wives and lovers – invariably ending up with the words “Jeffrey, you make me sick”. David Bickers skilfully provided many comic cameos including the jockey, Lester Piggott. Completing the quartet and no less accomplished than the others was David Peaty. Amongst his fine contributions I was particularly amused by his impersonation of the actor, Dennis Shaw. Together with this ‘dream team’ of actors and director must be included those responsible for an outstanding set.
It was hard to fault this slick production with its superb direction by Patricia Lyne, but if pushed the only quibble would be that Ryder looked too healthy for the dissolute old rake!
Review #3: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Publication: Words & Music
Publication Data: Unknown
Reviewer: Gordon Bull
Jeffrey Barnard was a bibulous journalist whose greatest claim to fame was having his shabby life immortalised by playwright Kenneth Waterhouse, otherwise he would undoubtedly, like the rest of us, have passed obliquely into history. If Look Back in Anger is your cup of tea, you would have found this ‘play’ worthy of a quick dip of a teabag.
Bernard, faultlessly verbalised throughout [almost a monologue] by Bob Ryder, wakes up sloshed at 5am in a pub, having accidentally been locked all night in the lavatory. His ability to crawl from the floor to the bar brings him to soliloquize in his wretched life, so utterly boring, mundane and universal. At no time did I feel the uncertainty consistent with one ‘under the influence of alcohol’, a difficult act to maintain as he pursued his catalogue of events, with the odd character effectively popping up to prop up the pretence. Ryder is consummate actor, and certainly he managed to consume a fair degree of liquid to keep his vocal chords well-oiled between a farrago of fags.
An occasional titter here and there from the audience paid heed to the humour. The big laughs, with one exception, depended as is common these days, on the particular vehemence or otherwise, with which each Anglo-Saxon vulgarity is expressed whether it be f***, sh** or p**s [I’m not allowed to spell them out]. This is how it was and this is how it ended. Literally! Must I spell it out?
And, oh! Yes! The best moment and the biggest all-round laugh was attributed to the banal couple at the bar, suitably dressed, whose complete act comprised trite and clichéd remarks. It stole the show! Funny, that!
Comment #1: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Publication: Wick News – November 2006
“Back in August, Wick made quite a splash by having our production of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell featured in the national theatre magazine Amateur Stage. As well as a three-page feature describing Patricia Lyne’s production for Wick – which included eight of Lucien Bouchy’s production photographs – we also bagged the front page, as you can see!
Well done to Rosemary Bouchy for getting us this national exposure. In fact the team at Amateur Stage were so pleased with the images from Wick, that they used some of the material again to illustrate their 50th anniversary publication in September.
Earlier Wick productions which have been featured in detailed illustrated articles in Amateur Stage have been Arcadia, Dandy Dick and Ciphers. Collector’s items all – but we have copies in the Wick Archive should you want to look them up!”
Comment #2: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Publication: Amateur Stage
Publication Data: August 2006 issue – pages 9 – 11
Section: The Play Produced
Comment Header: Patricia Lyne discusses her production for The Wick Theatre Company at The Barn, Southwick, near Brighton, last month
Wick Theatre Company has been performing at the Barn Theatre in Southwick for 55 years. ‘The Barn’ is part of an historic farmstead, just along the south coast from Brighton, which is a thriving centre for community-based arts and performance. With help from the National Lottery and other funders, major improvements to the theatre were carried out in the late 1990s, with the addition of new facilities for set-building, storage and rehearsal. Wick now produces six shows a year in the theatre space, which is shared with several other users. Some are performed on the proscenium stage, others [like Jeffrey Bernard] in a more intimate studio format.
Jeffrey Bernard thought that Keith Waterhouse was mad when he announced, one afternoon in the Groucho Club, that he intended to write a play based on Jeffrey’s ‘Low Life’ column for the Spectator. The play has enjoyed enormous success since it was first staged in 1989, with legendary performances by Peter O’Toole.
Halfway through our rehearsal run we learned that the play was to be produced in London with Tom Conti reprising the rôle. This gave some added profile locally to our own production [which had already been licensed for performance several months before] and we had a good response at the box office.
The play is set in the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, Jeff’s long-time ‘local’. The plot is simple. Jeff wakes from a drink-induced slumber to discover that it’s five in the morning and he is locked in. He proceeds to reminisce over the next two hours with hilarious and sometimes poignant anecdotes, in a lament for ‘a dying Soho’.
The part of Jeff is a huge challenge and it would be foolish to embark on this project without an actor capable of creating and sustaining a unique performance. We were fortunate in this regard our Jeff was an arrogant, unlovable drunk, who was nevertheless totally engaging and captivating.
The play is often remembered as a one-man show but is, in fact, peopled with around 60 characters from Jeff’s past played by just four actors, two female and two male. These are anything but thankless rôles, indeed a large proportion of the laughs are set up by Jeff, with the punch-line being delivered by the other characters. So we were also fortunate to have actors capable of playing a wide variety of rôles, and projecting the essence of an individual character sometimes in just a few seconds.
The male rôles can be pretty much shared to suit the two actors. However, it worked best to cast one of the female actors as all of the ‘wives and mistresses’ [plus the nurses, whenever Jeff was recalling hospital scenes] with the other one covering the wide range of other female characters. This helped underline the inevitable end of all Jeff’s relationships with women.
These were scheduled over a nine-week period around cast commitments – they all have busy jobs – which meant we could be rehearsing twice one week and four or five times the next, We held 31 rehearsals in total, including one technical and two dress rehearsals. We were even able to accommodate some of the World Cup fixtures into our schedule!
Although the actor playing Jeff is a quick study, we were surprised when he came to the initial read through with 90 per cent of the lines under his belt. This had two great advantages – it encouraged the other actors to do likewise and it meant that we had some really meaningful rehearsals from the very start of the rehearsal period. Rather than groping for lines, the cast were able to fully develop characterisation, as well as exploring different options for accents and dialects, etc.
There were also solo rehearsals which helped bring the character of Jeff to life in a truthful ‘warts and all’ manner, avoiding any temptation to present simply a loveable rogue. The lines are certainly those of a wit and raconteur, and the actor needs to engage with the audience in that way, but ultimately the humour and strength of this play lies in the faithful portrayal of a real individual.
SETTING AND SCENERY
The set designed for the Barn’s ‘studio space’ was developed by the workshop team with input from two of our designers. It was important that the space should clearly ‘represent’ the Coach and Horses while allowing all the ‘imagined’ characters to enter and exit from the shadows. Sometimes they play a scene directly with Jeff, or play a scene with Jeff commenting on the action, or they work solo to deliver a poem, a short speech or a quick one-line.
A red carpet set at an oblique angle defined the acting area, with a substantial eight-foot by six-foot pub ‘bar’ stage left of centre. A bar flap at the downstage end gave Jeff access to the bar while all other characters entered from the various flexible openings around the set. The bar was furnished with three tall stools, one of which, at the downstage end, was only used by Jeff. Two four-foot banquettes were set stage right at the stage right carpet corners. Completing the furniture was a small round pub table, centre, with two chairs.
Two ten-foot by four-foot frames were set upstage at the same angles as the carpet, staggered by a yard or so. These frames were painted to resemble tongue and groove boards, to a level of four feet, with the area above being filled with theatrical gauze. The gauzes were painted to resemble the etched glass of pub windows and, lit from the front, looked extremely effective. The stage-right frame had a three-foot platform immediately behind it, on which the actors stood to be lit for some of the characters.
LIGHTING AND EFFECTS
The set was tightly lit, primarily with warm tones, with a haze machine helping to define the acting area and enhance the appearance of characters appearing out of the darkness and disappearing again. As well as lanterns behind the gauze, allowing actors to appear unexpectedly. A ‘special’ was focused downstage left in which other characters could be isolated. This created an interesting balance and was particularly effective when used in combination, for example in ‘court’ scenes with the judge behind the upstage gauze and the defendant in the opposite downstage corner. Additional subtle lighting changes throughout enhanced the flow of the piece and necessitated some 90 cues. A smoke machine was used to generate the effect needed at the beginning of the second act, which opens with Jeff apparently beating out a fire in the pub [which we imagine he started when falling asleep at the end of the first act with a lit cigarette in his hand].
There are only about a dozen sound clips in the play, though a few are not straightforward and had to be put together especially by our sound engineer. As we didn’t use a ‘literal’ set, some effects had to be introduced for example, without a physical pub door, we needed effects for the rattling and unlocking of doors. Other recorded effects included clinking bottles to denote the arrival of a milkman and the sound of a London taxi to herald the arrival of the unseen landlord who comes to rescue Jeff at the end of the play. The musical backdrop was 1950’s jazz, summoning up the spirit of Ronnie Scott’s Soho club, with recording of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davies, etc.
The play is set in the mid-1980s, when Jeff would have been in his early 50s – his cream linen suit and brown loafers [all suitably battered] were specially purchased. Although some characters come from the recent [1980s] past, the majority date from the 1940s to the 1970s and need costuming accordingly. The two men had basic dark suits which were dressed up or down, and a variety of hats were employed which helped significantly with a period ‘look’ and also with definition of a particular character. Both females had a basic black dress or two-piece, which were also dressed up with jackets, hats and furs, etc. Some characters – for example, nurses – required a complete change of costume. However, apart from a few charity shop purchases and the hire of a judge’s wig, everything came from our own wardrobe or was ‘borrowed’ by our costume team.
FURNITURE AND PROPS
We were lucky in that one of our members has a family connection with a local pub which was undergoing a long-overdue refit, and so had a store of old bar furniture and equipment. We were therefore able to borrow some very useful and authentic items, including some well-worn bar furniture, a traditional beer pump, old fashioned ‘optics’ and other pub paraphernalia.
There were two properties that proved difficult to source. The first was an authentic soda siphon: Jeff drink an entire bottle of ‘vodka’, diluted with splashes of soda water, during the course of the play. Although it is possible to obtain old glass soda bottles, which used to be provided free in pubs, it is no longer possible to have them charged up. Instead, we used an old [1970s] green ‘Sparklets’ siphon.
The other problem item was a pineapple ice bucket [referred to in the script]. Having unsuccessfully scoured the bric-a-brac stalls of Brighton and Hove, the director almost despairingly tried a search on ‘E-Bay’. Amazingly this turned up a whole range of pineapple ice buckets for sale, one of which had only three hours to go and was quickly acquired for £10 – it looked great on the set too!
It is crucial for the main character to come across as an articulate and witty drunk rather than someone who is helplessly intoxicated. This has all sorts of implications, particularly in relation to the ‘business’ in this play – of which there is a great deal. While the character is constantly narrating or relating to other characters, his handling of drinking, smoking, unpacking and packing of belongings, making tea, ironing a shirt, etc, has to be handled effortlessly and look completely natural. In order to achieve this, the director and actor meticulously plotted every event so that the business appeared to happen almost absentmindedly, and so that the rapport with the audience was maintained throughout.
One challenge for any actor playing Jeff [even a hardened smoker, which our actor wasn’t] is to give the impression of chain-smoking, and in fact getting through 10 ‘Senior Service’, during the course of the play. In practice it is almost impossible to combine voice projection and smoke inhalation, so the actor has to develop a technique which looks entirely convincing while actually taking in very little smoke.
But perhaps the strangest ‘business’ challenge in this, or any other play for that matter is the famous ‘Egg Trick’ – an apparently impossible pub trick which has to be performed live. Basically, it involves perching a raw egg on top of a matchbox sleeve, on top of a biscuit-tin lid, on top of a beer glass full of water, then thrashing away the lid sideways with a blow from the actor’s shoe, leaving the egg to spin in the air before safely plopping, unbroken, into the glass of water – or not, as the case may be!
Having mastered this in rehearsals – with the loss of a few eggs in the process – we had faultless results in the performances, which never failed to earn audience cheers and applause.
The play proved extremely popular in performance. It generated a lot of laughter, which was actually heightened by the contrast with the occasionally poignant sections. It’s an unusual piece of theatre and yet its strengths are very much based in the power of theatre to grab the imagination through live performance. The audience enjoyment is very much in sharing the world brought to life in the playing.