Thoughts from an actor on being Jeffrey Bernard
Words of wisdom, undoubtedly…
Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell tells the stories, memories and reminiscences of Jeffrey Bernard during a night when he wakes to find himself locked in his favourite pub, The Coach & Horses, in Soho. Bernard was a central figure in Soho culture in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. He was famous for his alcoholism, womanising and gambling, which he reported in his weekly ‘Lowlife’ column in The Spectator.
It is a comedy, a reflection of life and a charting of the self-destruction of an utterly charming rogue. It is brilliantly written, sourced in no small part from Bernard’s own writings and stitched together into a delightful ensemble by Keith Waterhouse.
A bit of preamble…
For a man of my years (fifty and just the one) there are few, if any, roles more challenging and exciting than that of Jeffrey Bernard. The role is vast: Jeff never leaves the stage; accounts for around eighty-five percent of the words spoken; acts almost as a master of ceremonies introducing every new story and the characters that populate it; he is responsible for all transitions; and he must drive the play practically from the moment the lights come up to the moment they cut at the end of act two.
Including an interval of fifteen minutes, the play runs to around an hour and three quarters. It is emotionally, physically and mentally demanding. There is no respite for Jeff, barely a moment to draw breath and refocus. And focus must never waver. Because Jeff narrates and addresses the audience a considerable amount, he must have the authority to keep them with him, the charisma to hold their attention and to drive in them the desire to be seduced by the stories he tells and the life he has led.
For all those reasons, it is the role I have enjoyed more than any other I have had the honour of playing. With the right cast and crew to create a close-knit and supportive team – and we were that because despite Jeff’s on-stage dominance, this production relies on teamwork as much as any other – it is simply enormous fun.
But you have to be ready for it, you have to prepare (and yes you have to do that for any role in any production) on multiple fronts. No doubt actors reading this will find some or much of it unsurprising but so if you find a single nugget you can take away, I’ll deem this whole piece a success.
Den Den as played by the fantastic Callum Hale
Where to begin?
With this role as with no other, I’ve been asked how it is I’m able to learn ‘all those lines’. It’s a question that vexes many actors because learning isn’t the ‘hard’ bit, but it is nonetheless a valid question. Or rather, it is a valid sentiment because in reality anyone can learn anything of any length given enough time. The question should more properly be, ‘how can you both remember everything you are scripted to say and also imbue each line, each word, with the desired force, energy and intonation to bring the character to life?’
I was fortunate in that I had time. We were up in mid-May and I began the journey in late February. Some might argue that you can have too much time, that beginning to inhabit a character too early can lead to staleness, boredom. But for Jeffrey Bernard, I would advise the actor to begin as early as they can for a number of reasons. This is not a role you can take on three weeks before curtain-up and hope to do it justice, I don’t care who you are. In the play as in life, Jeff loved words, he savoured them, rolled them round his mouth and down his pen on to the page. He enjoyed them and picked each one with care. You need time to allow that comprehension to settle in your bones.
A page a day
I know a number of actors who have scanned the script and announced that they don’t think they could do it. Fair enough. But when you’re cast, you’ve got to. I took a very disciplined approach to getting all those glorious words into my head and heart.
A page a day, simple as that. Learn the first line, repeat, learn the second line, repeat both lines…and so on. And every morning, I went over everything I’d learned thus far. In the early days, of course, it was not a significant task. But as the mathematicians among us will have worked out, that task gets larger every day.
And I stuck to it no matter what. The greatest benefit of the approach I took was the way those words, those beautifully chosen words, became mine.
Say it often enough…
…and it becomes true. There’s one sure way to avoid any form of boredom or staleness when repeating lines and ensuring your memory is secure, and that’s to say them differently every time, or try to. Walking round the park with my dog every morning, I’d visualise the scene as I spoke, imagining gestures and adding emphasis to different words, trying to tease out the perfect way of delivering the sense of what had been written. I must have looked strange to onlookers but to be honest, I was so often lost in my own little Bernardian world, I didn’t much care.
I made wonderful discoveries while I walked. It’s a peaceful place, the park across the road from me. Big, open and largely unspoiled. If you can find yourself such a place, go to it because the lack of distraction, the purity, is an aid to thought. Particularly when considering Jeff’s monologues, I found ways to vary pace of delivery, emphasis, meaning and tone that I wouldn’t have discovered in a more distracted space like an office or a train.
Another benefit, by the way
By the time I was able to recite (and that’s all it really was at this point) the lines, one thought that struck me was how glad I was I’d started early. I switched to
They invariably make the same entrance wherever they go…
working on one act each day, identifying risk areas (Jeff’s repeated attempts to phone the landlord are key to the play’s progression, for instance) and places where delivery had to be paced to maintain (or increase) pace and energy.
I became acutely aware of where my actions on stage could drive the play on or let it flounder. Jeff has to be the focal point for the audience a great deal but that is not true 100% of the time and it’s crucial the actor understands this.
Finding a moment to pause
There’s a temptation for Jeff to dominate from line one but it’s an error that will lessen the production.
Here’s why: Jeff spends the entire play recounting events from his life. He was a lover of fascinating people and those people enrich every story he tells. Very often, they appear on stage and, whether it’s for one line, five or twenty, they are living in the moment he recalls them. And because they are memories, they will be accentuated, larger than life and must have the space to be so.
Very often, Jeff adopts the role of the straight man, introducing characters who tell the joke, speak the line that brings the big laugh or draw humour from their physicality on stage. They are the drivers of energy in those sometimes ephemeral scenes and Jeff is reduced quite rightly to onlooker and listener almost as if he is an audience member. That doesn’t mean he steps out of himself, by the way, the balance is fine – what he mustn’t do is upstage. And I would argue that when he is engaged in dialogue with a character, he should adopt the facilitator’s role. In that way, the richness of the people he recalls can be fully appreciated.
A fresh perspective
If you have the time in any role you play, where you have spent a great deal of time alone working on your character, get some professional eyes on what you’ve done before you go into rehearsal.
One of the reasons I wanted to have all the words within me was so I could work on problem areas. For me there was no one better than Sam Lupton who is an actor, a singer, a teacher of both disciplines, and has recent extensive experience of West End musical theatre. He’s a very talented man and, importantly, a good
Of course not, my angel… get your knickers off.
friend and that means I trust him and that he can be brutally honest without offence.
We had two, two-hour sessions and in them he challenged assumptions I’d made, showed me other ways to think, changed where I was placing my speech in my mouth and got me to focus more on my breathing.
Right at the start of the play, there’s a lengthy monologue which is, in effect, an obituary which serves to introduce Jeff and summarise a good deal of what is to come. It’s a lovely speech but it has to be delivered correctly or the play will lack energy from the start; plainly undesirable and hard to recover from.
The opening line of this speech is; ‘I could die here.’ Only one way you can say that, right? Reflective…anxious even…downbeat. Wrong. Sam pointed out that delivering the line that way floors the energy of the entire speech and opens the play flat. What if the rest of that line was ‘…and that would be just fine’? he asked. Boom. The energy is up, Jeff sees it as a challenge rather than a problem, the audience laughs (and they did) and the speech is set up to succeed.
As an aside, my agent, Ross MacFarlane who came to see the show said that, right until the very end where Jeff does become properly reflective (but even then, not downbeat) he regards himself as the funniest man alive, a man for whom humour can and must be found in even the direst of circumstances. That is a good rule by which to perform Jeff.
Pitch it right
Sam and I found number of areas where the temptation to become moribund had to be resisted. Even the speech where Jeff considers his own mortality ends upbeat… ‘perhaps the party can go on, different premises and no closing time.’ Identifying them and finding humour rather than pathos makes for a far more energised and engrossing performance. Any research into him will tell you he was not a man who dealt much with negativity.
Anyway, onto vocals. I have a habit of speaking from the back of my mouth. It’s laziness when you think about it. It means the lips and tongue don’t work so hard and it gives the words a breathy, sometimes slightly rough quality. It sounds fine as far as it goes but it also means that the moment my breath runs short, I tend to swallow my words. Sam picked up on this immediately (as he has with my singing technique) and told me to place the words right at the front of my mouth and to use more breath support.
The effects were immediate and threefold. Remember how I said Bernard savours words? Well, placing the words at the front of my mouth allowed me to do that. Almost tasting them as I spoke them, was quite a revelation. Second, using better breath support allowed me to maintain my energy through to the end of each line – I know this sounds obvious to actors but I’d lapsed into a bad habit and needed shaking out of it. And third, ditching the breathy quality in favour of clarity saved my throat from getting a rasping every time I performed. What’s not to love? Thank you, Sam.
The rehearsal room
Another reason for getting as much prep done as I could, was our short rehearsal time; two working weeks, and only three days in that time did we have the full cast
Jeff, Caspar and Tom race cats, obviously
available. Not only that, we’d be having our dress and tech rehearsal the same day as our first performance. The pressure was indeed on.
Well, I suppose it was but it didn’t ever feel that way and there lies the value of an experienced and talented cast, director, producer and stage manager. Everyone came to the first day having done a great deal of work on anything from performance to props to costume. And don’t underestimate the importance of those latter two because for the cast barring Jeff, there are multiple costume changes, often with precious little time available. Timing, placement of props and costumes, entrance points…all had to be understood on day one while I, as Jeff, rather swanned around the room expecting people to be on cue. They always were.
I’d got the lines. They’d sunk into my heart and soul. I was at the stage I didn’t believe you’ll ever drop one of them. Ever. The PR accent I was using for the character was so much part of mw, it was hard to drop in normal conversation.
Then I get into my first proper run of act one and it was like I’d never bothered to learn the part at all. Does that sound familiar to anyone?
All right, I’m being a bit dramatic but you have to be ready for it. Reading cues off a book and imagining lines in your head on a train or performing them to your dog and a few ducks in the park is nothing at all like rehearsal. When all of a sudden you have an actual set you have to navigate, props you have to manage, places you have to be to perform certain actions (for Jeff, that’s more often than not a phone call or to pour himself a drink) and, horror of horrors, real actors delivering lines to you in ways you didn’t expect.
Don’t let it get to you. Know that it’s almost certain to happen, remember what you know, recall all the work you did and most of all, get familiar with all those new distractions, work them into your imagination and use them to bring another dimension to your performance. Let’s face it, it’s going from 2-D to 3-D. It’s not all going to be plain sailing.
The complexities of playing Jeffrey Bernard are such that you have to maintain your belief in yourself and the capacity of your mind to handle the role. It’s in there, just waiting to be let out.
The fun really begins
‘Jeffrey Bernard is unwell…’
In acting more than in most other jobs, frankly, if you’re not having fun then what on earth are you doing it for? It is a precarious enough profession as it is; the least you should be is cheerful when you do get work. There are degrees and degrees of fun, of course and I had such fun during rehearsals.
At the heart of that is the team of course. I was blessed to be working with such a group of experienced and talented people. It was like the perfect storm of determination, creativity and intelligence in a theatre company.
Our director adopted a collaborative approach, forced on her in part because she was also a cast member. This had the effect of making the whole ensemble a melting pot of ideas. Thoughts flowed, some were taken on, others discarded. People were free to comment and suggest at any time on anything. And if it sounds chaotic it was anything but. All ideas were channelled through the director who had the final say. It all added to the pleasure.
Another effect was to accelerate discoveries in terms of characters and performance, a good thing given the scarcity of rehearsal time. Each cast member had between twelve and twenty characters to portray and I watched each one develop as day followed day.
You’ll find a paragraph on everyone involved below but if you take one thing away from this, it’s the value of a cast working as such a close-knit team, providing support, constructive criticism and exuding the desire to exceed expectations as to the quality of the production.
While I was the ‘star’ of the show in all honesty, I think my job was easier than any other cast member. I only had to be Jeff…Jeff getting slowly more pissed over the course of a couple of hours while he told story after story. The stage was the calm place, the easy place. Behind the flats, my friends were flying about in total silence, moving to their next entry point, changing costume, sweeping up their props, adopting their next character before coming on, delivering maybe only one line before heading off to do it again.
We need an audience
I’m going to tell you a secret. Despite the fun I was having, I was horrified at the thought of such a short rehearsal period. And when we began I was even more horrified to find out how few days we’d have the full cast. And by the time we’d lost a day to a combination of absences and public transport chaos I was nervous about what we were going to be able to serve up on opening night.
But what happened on the second Monday caused my fears to vanish like mist before the sun. Almost as if the work we’d done the first week settled into our collective sub-conscious over the weekend, the play came to stunning life first thing on that Monday morning.
It’s a confidence thing of course and in the twinkling of an eye, I had what I needed – belief in myself and belief in the team. Not that I didn’t have it before but in this one glorious moment I could see it all laid out and it was obvious that the whole was going to be far, far greater than the sum of its parts.
Incredibly, by the end of Thursday’s rehearsal, we were already in need of an audience. A day to spare…and Friday became a day to do a single run then have the
‘If Bonhomie wins, I’m fucked.’
luxury of tidying up a couple of scenes, packing up and going home early.
Live at last
‘…I’d have ended up keeping bees.’
The journey was at an end. I’d been living with Jeffrey for three months. He occupied many of my waking hours. I’d read books on him and his writings, we’d visited the Coach & Horses, I’d looked up a lot of the characters he brings on stage. I had snatches of dialogue running round my head, monologues would rear up unbidden and I visualised how I would deliver them.
Sam had said to me ‘You can’t land every line. You have to know where you have to place your emphasis.’ I did – and working through rehearsals had fine-tuned every moment.
Lying under the pub table on the first night, listening to Elizabeth Smart reciting the opening poem, though my heart rate was raised, I felt nerveless. I was ready. Jeff was ready. I’d had a mild panic just before being called and had checked my script for the position of every phone call before rebuking myself – reminding myself that I absolutely knew it.
Getting up and moving about the Coach & Horses, I felt at home. Out there, the audience were watching and as I moved around my domain, I relaxed. I have never before felt so confident on stage, so at ease with my role and so certain about what was to come. Off stage, actors waited to be summoned from Jeff’s memory to walk and speak their moments and I knew there would not be a missed entrance, a missed cue, nothing. I couldn’t wait for them to come on so we could enjoy it together. This was not complacency, it was clarity. It was wonderful.
Actors will argue about portraying a character as opposed to being a character. The fact is, it’s both. For most of the time during a performance, you are aware, as
Nikki Wright as Eva Johansen
the actor, that it is you portraying someone from the pages of a script, be they real or fictional, on one level or another. You can hear the audience; you have to so you can adapt your performance as necessary. But I found with Jeffrey Bernard that there were moments I genuinely lost myself within him, when I inhabited him. Like when I listened to Eva Johansen reciting a letter she’d written to him…me. Like when I recounted the tale of a friend who’d urinated through a letter box while I was mixing and drinking a Bloody Mary. Like when I was ironing a short and talking about his…my…parents. These were sublime moments.
Gail Ashwell as Muriel Belcher
I believe we created an extraordinary theatrical experience for ourselves. I was lucky indeed to work with people who were so good they made my job as easy as it could be given its sheer scale. Their confidence and belief fed my own and it’s a feeling I will never forget and will forever seek to recreate.
Our audiences were engaged and entertained. After every performance, we the cast chatted about things we might push a little further, places where we could do better. And then we went out and did it next time. Feedback was wonderful. In the bar following each performance, it was clear that audiences were blown away by what they’d seen. And never mind leaving them hungry for more, it left us starving to do it all over again and again…
An unforeseen issue about living with Jeffrey for so long is that he is reluctant to leave. A week after we closed, I still found myself going over speeches, looking for ways to improve. Odd. Normally, the character flees when the run is done. Not Jeff. He hangs about, just needing the one before he goes…
Mark Shaer as John Le Mesurier
Without these people, I could not have reached the places I did with Jeffrey Bernard. I am forever in their debt and if I have the chance to do the same for them, I’ll leap at it…
Gail Ashwell is an actress and director who knows how it’s done. Her approach to this production is what made it the joy it was. I’ve worked with Gail before and love the way she is always thinking, and the way she sees through a problem and can fix it with a gentle note or suggestion.
Callum Hale is a very talented young actor. His m.o. was to notch up the physicality, vocal emphasis, or both, every time he walked on, seeking that moment when he went over the top so he could pull back. He pitched every character to perfection, reserving a little bit more for performance when he felt it was needed and the audience would take it. I had to hang on to myself not to corpse helplessly every time he came on as Dennis Shaw or Francis Bacon.
Nikki Wright is an actress of long experience and consummate skill. Hers was a cerebral approach, and you could see her thinking through everything she said and did, looking for ways to strengthen each character. I’ve worked with Nikki before and like last time, I learned a great deal from her. Nikki’s Eva Johansen was beautiful.
Mark Shaer is one of those actors who can shift gear from character to character with apparent effortlessness. But those familiar with the swan analogy should apply it now to get an inkling of the amount of thought, planning and execution that goes into such effortlessness. Again, I’ve worked with Mark before and love watching him grow into the roles he plays. The joy of his Caspar during the cat racing scene will live long with me.
Greta Jenkins is a producer with long experience in the industry. She misses nothing and in a play like Jeffrey Bernard, that’s vital. As the mound of props grew, knowing there was someone who knew where everything had to be and when was a source of comfort making every actor’s job easier. And when I stopped to consider that was only one of the tasks she took on – front of house, programme, set design as well for instance, I wonder if she slept at all.
Paula Bland was our stage manager and I’d recommend her to anyone needing a calm, efficient, accurate and lovely person back stage. Need I say more?
And lest I forget, Jordan and Martin at The Dugdale Theatre in Enfield who build sets at the speed of light and set lighting plots in the blink of an eye.
James (or Scott) Barclay, May 2016
James Barclay has snuck quietly into his early fifties. He’s a successful fantasy novelist with his thirteenth book, Heart of Granite, due for publication on 18th August 2016. He is represented by Robert Kirby at United Agents in the UK, and by Howard Morhaim at Morhaim Literary Agency in the US. He acts under the name, Scott Barclay and when not being Jeffrey Bernard, works in theatre, film and TV. He is represented by Ross MacFarlane at MacFarlane Doyle Associates.