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Tuesday July 11 2006

imageLast Friday evening I went to the theatre, with my actress friend Elena and some friends of hers.  It was Keith Waterhouse’s play about the Spectator (among other organs) columnist Jeffrey Bernard, who used to drink a lot.  In the original production Bernard was played by - “the role was created by” - Peter O’Toole.  In this production, Bernard was Tom Conti.  I never saw O’Toole in this part, and last Friday was my first taste of this play.  My first sip, you might say.  Apart, that is, from occasionally reading the Spectator Low Life column while Bernard was still writing it.

And very tasty and entertaining the play was.  The set is excellent.  It’s a Soho pub, the Coach and Horses, which is apparently very famous, not least because of this play.  None of the lines in this set are properly parallel, even the picture frames being mis-shapen.  The verticals converge as you go upwards, like one of my digital photos of skyscrapers, and the floor slopes downwards, both so that we can see it better, and so that the feeling of not being able to stand up very well is reinforced, and Conti doesn’t have to be a drunk on a sober-looking stage.  (There is a small picture of Tom Conti on the set here, together with other good pictures

The show is basically a one-hander, but there are four other actors, two men (one middle aged and slightly fat, one young and good looking) and two ladies (both lovely figures, the blonde particularly nice looking), to play various friends, employers, jockeys, lovers, doctors, nurses, policemen, wives, and (two of my favourites) Mr and Mrs Backbone of England, who say nothing at all very loudly and at length in a country pub, during one of Bernard’s doomed marriages when he is trying to live in the country.  Most of these various people come on and then disappear, often after just the one line, very quickly, either by walking onto the stage and then off, or by appearing at a window with a sliding door at the top right hand side of the stage.  It all adds to the sense of drunken memories flitting hither and thither.  The best of these other actors was Royce Mills, who did all the slightly fat characters, on account – see above - of him being slightly fat himself.

I can’t honestly say that this play is “about” anything very much, other than about a funny drunk guy and his funny friends and acquaintances.  But I didn’t find myself grumbling about what it cost me (£17.50) at any stage during the evening.  I did worry about what the popularity of this play and the fact that the audience was enjoying it so much says about the State of Britain Today, blah blah blah, but not enough to spoil my enjoyment.

I knew as soon as it started, with the opening bars of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major K488.  Apparently Bernard was, just like me, brought up to love classical music, and whenever some outraged wife or girlfriend chucked him out into the street and he had to lug his suitcase and bags about looking for somewhere to crash, he always included Mozart tapes in his luggage.

Good man.  And I think this is a clue to the appeal of this play, and of this character.  Just like Mozart, Jeffrey Bernard was gentle, friendly, charming, on the surface, and as with instrumental music, nothing very obvious is happening.  There is no obvious story.  It’s not about anything, except whatever happenes to be in our protagonist’s head.  But, just beneath the charming surface there are undercurrents and hints of tragedy.  Sometimes, an abyss is glimpsed, and then, just as suddenly, all is charm and light again.  (Think: last movement of Symphony No. 40 in G minor K550.  The music at one point seemingly disappears off a cliff, leaping from “Mozart” to pure twentieth century atonalism.  Then, a moment later, it is as if it never happened.)

One of Elena’s friends also saw the original Jeffrey Bernard - in the first production of this play, I mean - Peter O’Toole.  Not Jeffrey Bernard himself.  O’Toole’s Bernard was, she said, an altogether more dark and dangerous figure than Conti made him.  Conti did lots of byplay with the audience, like a stand-up comic.  O’Toole was a more distant figure, less concerned with what the audience made of him, more visibly and continuously contemplating the abyss than Conti.

However, Conti is not new to this part.  He first did Bernard twenty odd years ago.  I am unclear whether what I saw last Friday night is the same set and same production as the original O’Toole show.  I rather think it is.  Ned Sherrin has directed throughout, and Royce Mills acted alongside O’Toole.  So I’m guessing this is a revival rather than a new production.

Presumably, then, there was Mozart for O’Toole as well.