Epitaph for George Dillon was written by John Osborne before he found success with Look Back In Anger and in it you can see the beginnings of the themes that would permeate his most famous work.
Set in suffocating 1950s suburbia, the Elliot household is dominated by women. Daughter Josie (Zoe Tapper) drifts round the living room in her Capri pants and curlers while her downtrodden father Percy Elliot hides behind a newspaper, his wife unabashed about telling him that “as far as I’m concerned you’re just the lodger.”
The actual lodger comes in the form of George Dillon, played in an odd, overblown though not uncharismatic fashion by Joseph Fiennes. An actor and a writer, Dillon has had little success in either profession and is virtually penniless. Having lost her son Raymond in the war, Mrs Elliot (a wonderful comic performance by Anne Reid) openly admits that she looks on him as a surrogate and provides a room for him rent-free, just happy to have him about the place.
Epitaph’s most intriguing character is that of Mrs Elliot’s sister Ruth, an educated, politically aware divorcee, played by Francesca Annis (the real life partner of Joseph’s brother Ralph). She has only recently ended a relationship with one temperamental artistic type and though George is young enough to be her son, it is clear she is attracted to him, to his intensity, his passion. Hers is an austere, yet measured and moving performance, even if the necessary sexual sparks between the two don’t really materialise in the engaging scene where George unleashes his real feeling about the family who have taken him in.
As George, Joseph Fiennes is somewhat mannered and self-conscious, a choice which though not unwarranted by the character, has a rather distancing effect on his performance. He seems too pretty, too polished, to best convey this awkward conflicted young man. He has abundant stage presence but there’s something unsatisfying about him.
John Gunter’s set is the picture of 1950s suburban stuffiness, all antimacassars and cheap veneer. Peter Gill directs with expected intelligence but as engaging as this production is, the play itself is problematic. Epitaph for George Dillon was not written by Osborne alone, but with his probable lover Anthony Creighton. And it feels very much like the work of two writers. The earlier establishing scenes are gentler in their mockery of the banality of 50s family life and contain some very amusing dialogue. But the later two-hander between George and Ruth is full of bitterness and indiscriminate railing against a constricting society. In these scenes Dillon sounds very much like a prototype Jimmy Porter.
Maybe it’s because the regimented post-war world that the Elliots inhabit is distanced from contemporary British life to the point that I found it hard to appreciate its stifling nature, but I couldn’t help viewing Dillon as little more than a selfish, self-indulgent character and it was difficult to feel any real empathy with his plight. For all their flaws, the Elliot family have taken him in and provided for him, yet all he can do his fume and fuss (and knock up their daughter). As a piece of theatre I found Epitaph chiefly of interest for the way it allows us to see the development of John Osborne as a writer, to see the evolution of the themes that would dominate Look Back In Anger.
It is, for all that, a strong production, a compelling portrait of an era – it asks interesting questions about talent and obligation – but the character of Dillon leaves a hollow at its centre and it is left to the women, to the excellent Annis and Anne Reid to humanise the proceedings.