HE IS a man with a career as long as it is distinguished. But Robert Powell is still challenging himself, and is currently touring one of his most ambitious pieces yet, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. He spoke to Sammy Jones.
Jeffrey was a Fleet Street legend who worked hard, and was incredibly dedicated – to his job, alcohol, gambling and women.
It is a true story that perhaps should be far more melancholy than it is.
“Effectively, it is a 37 page monologue,” Robert says, “...with some very funny interruptions.
“I took on this huge, ‘never leave the stage’ part, but I always tell young actors, if it doesn’t scare you, don’t do it!”
We presume the learning process was a lengthy one, then. But we are wrong.
“I have been working for 45 years and have never learned a part in advance. I do it through osmosis in rehearsal.”
For the past six years, Robert has occupied a weekly prime time spot on medical drama, Holby City, which recently ended.
And for the moment, what is the small-screen’s loss, is theatre-land’s gain.
“I knew I was leaving last summer,” he starts.
”I said to my agent ‘let everyone know’ and we had a lot of theatre offers come in.
“But I actually chose to do this.
“I said to director David Grindley ‘Can we meet at the Groucho and have a beer? “Oddly enough, he had the same idea about the play...”
When we speak, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell is a mere three days into a three month long stretch.
Earlier, Robert ran through the show in its entirety on his own, now he is fresh off stage from the matinee, with the evening performance still to roll. He is nothing if not dedicated.
“I’ll keep doing it this way, until I can without thinking. It will take me two or three weeks to get this down completely.” he explains.
“I never relax, I am an absolute perfectionist, but if you are on stage for that long it is quite terrifying,” he admits.
“Apparently, the shot of adrenalin is equivalent to driving a car into a brick wall at 60mph, and knowing you are doing it,” he says of first night nerves. “I am fortunate, though.
“I’ve been at the sharp end for a long time,” he says of his career that has famously also included portrayals of the messiah in Jesus of Nazareth and Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps.
In Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, the journalist is trapped overnight in his favourite Soho pub.
A host of ex wives, friends and enemies join him in retracing scenes from a life packed with hysterical and absurd incidents.
Robert never met the man he is portraying, but has it on good authority that his imitation is spot on.
“Gloriously, just before you called, a lady came to the stage door who knew Jeffrey very well – she was an intimate friend.
“She said ‘It is exactly like him, even down to the walk. Actors don’t know how we do these things, but hearing things like that is quite gratifying.
“There is a lot of f****** in the play,” Robert says, eluding to the colourful language within the piece.
“I though the audience would have been clanking seats at that point, but it’s not so.
“The thing with my audience is a lot of them picked me up as a 20-something and have travelled with me.”
As big a supporter of the theatre that Robert is, even he doesn’t take risks when choosing a production to view.
“I confess, and I am slightly ashamed that I don’t go on spec,” admits the man who lives a mere 15 minutes away from the West End.
“I know what is on and I know who is in it, but I read reviews before I go.
“My own? Oh, no,” he says, shocked at the mere question, “I don’t read my own reviews!”
Looking ahead, Robert quite fancies a ‘really good television drama’ to work on, and mentions The Wire and Boardwalk Empire as ‘brilliantly crafted and beautifully acted’ American examples.
But you can bet good money that Robert won’t feature in a 3D delivery anytime soon.
“What a waste of time that is. It’s a gimmick,” he says.
“We tried this a long time ago and it never worked. I really don’t believe that 3D is the answer to a maidens prayer in television and film...”
But 3D aside, lets take a look at Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell for ourselves.
Robert, Rebecca Lacey and the cast entire will be at MK Theatre from Monday for a six-day run
“The response has been ecstatic. There are moments when the audience go into hysterics,” Robert says, giving the patter we ask of him.
“It is a bizarrely, funny evening with moments of sublime humour...and a thread of poignancy running through it.”
Tickets start at £10, rising to £27.
Performances are 7.30pm nightly, with additional matinees.
Call to book on 0844 871 7652.