Epitaph For George Dillon, Comedy Theatre, London

A rare and powerful portrayal of Osborne's not-so-angry hero
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The Independent Culture

In collaboration with Anthony Creighton (his friend, fellow actor, and -some claim - lover), John Osborne completed Epitaph For George Dillon two years before his megawatt solo debut in 1956 with Look Back in Anger. So the play gives us fascinating access to Osborne's writing as it was before he made history and when his impulses were partly checked by another hand.

Gill's production creates a powerful sense of stifling Fifties domesticity - all moquette and cloying Mantovani and a nagged, emasculated husband who enviously says he'll die happy when he persuades the council to lock the park gates after dark.

The play is a tragi-comic projection of what it would be like if a potential angry young man in the Osborne/Jimmy Porter mould had bottled out through lack of courage or talent and settled for a travesty of success, prostituting himself to a corrupt theatrical producer by turning out dirty, titillating rewrites of his unperformed pieces for the lucrative consumption of the provincial circuit.

George Dillon is an unsuccessful actor and aspiring dramatist who is sponging off a lower-middle-class-family whose mother dotingly treats him as a surrogate for the son she lost in the war. He's the kind of would-be artist who masks his insecurity about his talent with voluble contempt for the masses.

The distinctive note of the Osborne hero - a strident, self-centred, caustically clowning rage at the lack of life in others - is first sounded in George's tirades against the theatre audiences who reject him and the Elliot family members whom he derides as ridiculous caricatures, while allowing them the privilege of subsidising him. And the play asks you to contemplate the dread possibility that he may have found his rightful level.

Joseph Fiennes captures the sardonic charisma and the slippery bad faith of the character but is less good at conveying the acrid edge of self-disgust that underlies the bravado. Unusually in a drama with Osborne's name on it, the hero is here confronted with intelligent and effective female opposition. This comes in the shape of Ruth, the mother's attractive, divorced sister who has just extricated herself from both the Communist Party and a six year affair with another struggling author.

Some may find it an added frisson that Francesca Annis happens to be the well-known older lover of Joseph's brother, Ralph. But that is unnecessary, for the actress splendidly communicates the poignant mix of weary, battle-scarred experience, fragile hope, and ironic amusement in the great scene where she and George never quite click as lonely soul-mates because she can see through him to the point of issuing a challenge that he should stop blaming the public.

Left to his own devices, Osborne tended to produce dramas monopolised by motormouth protagonists. Gill's production demonstrates this collaborative work is a genuine ensemble piece, with a cast graced by Anne Reid's superb performance as the prattling but controlling mother.

There was a hiccup on press night. We're used to Osborne's heroes that fly off the handle but when a door stuck at a sexually vital moment, this hero pulled off its handle - and lead off his conquest through the kitchen.