The notion of playing his old Soho mucker once made John Hurt feel as unwell as Jeffrey Bernard was often said to be when his Spectator column failed to appear. In 1989, Hurt passed on the chance to star in the West End premiere of Keith Waterhouse’s comedy, later explaining he “sweated at the idea of playing Jeff”.
Peter O’Toole, as perfect a physical template as you could get for Bernard, was lauded for the poetic melancholy he brought to the original run, while Tom Conti, at the Garrick in 2006, went for the sympathy vote in a wistful performance.
Now Hurt gives us his rendition, opening with a deliberately enervated cry of ‘Help’ as Bernard finds himself locked in Soho’s Coach and Horses pub. His voice is grizzled, lived-in, as he launches into a re-enactment of Bernard’s life of convention-defying excess, the script’s many witticisms delivered with comic delicacy.
There is a strong sense of time and place in this superb, uncluttered production, with a skilled ensemble cast. Recorded at Gerry’s Club in Dean Street, the visual jokes – catching a cracked egg in a glass and cat racing – are as vivid as if we are watching them.
Hurt’s central performance is one of great finesse. As the life of this fallen folk-hero from a bygone age lurches in all directions, Hurt goes neither for self-pity or triumphalism. The tragicomedy of Bernard’s life is given a bleary-eyed honesty by Hurt and even, ultimately, a sense of gentle hopefulness.