Whatsonstage.com theatregoers were treated to an all-star turnout this week at our Outing to Epitaph for George Dillon at the West End’s Comedy Theatre. After two hours and 30 minutes of performance on Tuesday night, Joseph Fiennes, Francesca Annis and Anne Reid returned to the stage to talk exclusively to our group about their experiences on Peter Gill’s revival of John Osborne (most famous for Look Back in Anger, written a year later) and Anthony Creighton’s 1950s comedy drama.

In Epitaph for George Dillon, the Elliots lead a mundane suburban life in lower middle class south London. Their household is disrupted when Kate (Reid) brings home a surrogate for her son killed in the war. This aspiring actor-writer is the charismatic but penniless George Dillon (Fiennes). The play explores the relationship between the stranger and the Elliots, including Kate’s daughter Josie (Zoe Tapper) and her sister Ruth (Annis).

At last night’s Q&A, Fiennes, Annis and Reid were joined by fellow cast members Tapper, Geoffrey Hutchings (who plays Mr Elliot) and Stephen Greif (who plays an unscrupulous theatrical producer). Highlights from the discussion follow…

On Osborne’s opinion that Epitaph was inferior to Look Back in Anger

Joseph Fiennes: Perhaps Osborne would have said that because on George Dillon he collaborated with Anthony Creighton.

Francesca Annis: Yes, I think the fact it was a shared writing experience might have made him feel it wasn’t all his own work so perhaps wasn’t entirely his creation.

Geoffrey Hutchings: George is very biographical of Osborne, as is Jimmy Porter in Look Back, so I think in some ways they are very similar.

Zoe Tapper: Lots of people have said Osborne wrote the long speeches that George delivers, and Creighton wrote the snappy dialogues between the family members, because those were their particular strengths and reflected their personalities most.

On the 1950s setting

JF (describing the company’s research methods): We watched a lot of films together, that was very useful. A particularly good one we watched was a David Lean film This Happy Breed.

GH: We did music hall as well to get the rhythm and the timing of the language.

Anne Reid: Yes, that was fun, wasn’t it?!

GH: It must be incredibly difficult for young actors to play a 1950s period piece, because times have changed so much. They have to really research the era and find out how people behaved and how they spoke in those days. I think there is almost as much research involved now with playing a 1950s drama as there is doing a Restoration piece or a Jacobean piece. It’s only 50 years ago, but it was so different.

AR: I would say it’s very difficult now for young girls to play a virgin. They behaved themselves in those days. (All eyes turn to Zoe Tapper who blushes.)

On smoking on stage

GH: If this was the Fifties, all the audience would be smoking now as well.

Stephen Greif: I don’t smoke actually. My character does, but I gave up three years ago and so now, even if I was just on herbal cigarettes that would be it, I’d be back at square one. So I don’t smoke in this play.

JF: I used to smoke. It feels part of the language of that period. In an extreme way, if someone says Noel Coward I think of people standing at French windows smoking. It’s an association and evocative of that period, it seems right.

On director Peter Gill

GH:: He thinks everything through incredibly well. All his plotting is motivated, it’s not random.

FA: He could be incredibly harsh on all the characters in the play, because they do have some awful traits, but he leaves it up to the audience to see what the characters do and reinterpret for themselves whether they are being genuine and what’s really going on…. Peter has a complete choreographic kind of vision. I do trust his judgement enormously. He tells you to do things like “sit over there”, and you have no idea why but he says “just do it” and it all seems to work out.

AR: He tells you things that seem ridiculous and then, if you work at them, you suddenly see what he’s getting at. One of the best things, though, is that he doesn’t leave you to flounder at all. He is one of the few directors who you feel you can actually go up to and say, “please sir, how do I say this line?” and he’ll help you.

ZT: He doesn’t let you get away with anything. The whole time I was trying to find some sort of inner melancholy for Josie, and he said “there’s no dark side to Josie at all, she’s always on the go and bright”. So he wouldn’t let me get away with that.

AR: He kept saying you should play a juvenile, didn’t he? But you didn’t really know what that was because, of course, they don’t exist now. Certainly in my time, that’s what you moved to – you played a juvenile character and then moved on from there. We’ve had some great discussions about the theatre at that time. For instance, Joseph wouldn’t be sitting there in his jeans and trainers (pointing to the casually dressed Fiennes), he would be in a suit and tie. That’s how it used to be - I remember it well! (Fiennes makes a move as if to go and change.)

On the play’s ending

JF: What I love about the play is it leaves a sort of ambiguity. Who knows what happens? He (George) might continue to write shoddy plays that do really well or he might break free and walk out, he might die of TB, he might die of the Elliots, or he might not. I don’t know, it’s all up in the air and it’s up for grabs.

- by Caroline Ansdell