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Bernard wrote the "Low Life" column in The Spectator. The play's title refers to the magazine's habit of printing a one-line apology on a blank page when he was too drunk or hung-over to produce the required copy and a substitute article could not be found before the deadline for publication. Its premise is that Bernard has found himself locked in overnight at his favourite public house, the Coach and Horses, Soho, and uses the occasion to share anecdotes from his life with the audience. A highlight of the play is a trick involving a glass of water, a matchbox, and an egg which must remain unbroken at the end of the trick. This trick is more fully described in an obituary of Keith Waterhouse in The Guardian.
Often remembered as a one-man show, but in fact packed with characters performed by a versatile supporting cast of four, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell was a highly successful vehicle for its original star Peter O'Toole. The show opened in Brighton in September 1989, moved to Bath and made its triumphant London debut at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue in October. O'Toole also appeared in a later revival at the Old Vic. The Old Vic run was totally sold out and on August 23, 1999, the London Evening Standard published a 'Bluffer's Guide' to enable readers to pretend they had seen it: "thereby allowing dinner party conversations and watercooler debates to run their course unhindered by ignorance."
A filmed version of the stage play was shot at the Apollo Theatre with a live audience and was released in both full and abridged versions.
O'Toole was followed in the part by Tom Conti who starred in a revival of the play until September 2006 at the Garrick Theatre in London. The part has also been played by James Bolam, Dennis Waterman, Robert Powell, and most recently Simon Hill in the Frayed Knot Production of the play.
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