While Epitaph for George Dillon had its London premiere at the Royal Court in 1958, two years after Look Back in Anger, John Osborne actually wrote it – with his then collaborator Anthony Creighton – a year before the landmark play that made his name.
In this earlier ensemble-oriented piece, we’re confronted by an embryonic Jimmy Porter, the archetypal “angry young man”, in the title character. In fact, George Dillon is an even more thinly veiled version of Osborne himself: an aspiring actor-playwright embittered by the ongoing effort of ignoring his own failure (or continually waiting for success, depending on your outlook) and losing faith in his own ability. Is he truly afflicted with talent or only exhibiting symptoms of the disease?
George’s need to discover the answer to that question is allayed by the kindness of Kate Elliot, whose soldier son died in the war and who makes no bones about adopting the bohemian George as a surrogate. “I want you to feel that you are taking his place here,” Kate declares as she moves George into her kitschly suburban south London home (post-war period perfect design by John Gunter) and plies him with food, money and affection.
With supreme ingratitude, the lodger tears into his host family behind their backs, writing them off as caricatures – “if you put them on a stage, no one would take them seriously”. Ironically, though, it’s George, and his unrelenting assault on ‘bourgeois’ values and aspirations, who comes across as the most boring cliché here. Joseph Fiennes’ George clearly regards himself as a victim of society, reacting to perceived injustices with sneering sarcasm, snobbery and self-loathing, but he’s unable to inject Osborne’s anti-hero with enough compensatory charm to make us care about him, even when his physical ailments are revealed.
As Kate’s live-in, leftwing sister Ruth, Francesca Annis provides an intellectual and sexual sparring partner for George. And she does so with consummate grace and subtlety. We are the same kind, George tells Ruth, but Annis proves her character to be far nobler.
More engaging than George’s personal concerns or his dalliance with Ruth is his impact on the larger Elliot family dynamic. In the opening scene, as they await their guest’s arrival, there’s abundant humour in the playing out of rituals between doting but demanding Kate (a stand-out performance from the always excellent Anne Reid), her docile daughters Josie and Norah (Zoe Tapper and Dorothy Atkinson) and grumpy, newspaper-shielding husband (Geoffrey Hutchings). And throughout, there’s great poignancy in the acknowledgement of the family’s humble hopes – stealing away from the office five minutes early, getting a seat on the train, finding a beau.
Under the sympathetic direction of Peter Gill, himself a Royal Court veteran from the generation after Osborne, these details are lent even greater significance, with fluid scene transitions spotlighting isolated individual moments of day-to-day existence. Beautiful.
- Terri Paddock