Epitaph For George Dillon, Comedy Theatre, London

Look back at a tamed Osborne
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The Independent Culture

Gill's production creates a sense of stifling Fifties domesticity - all moquette and cloying Mantovani, and a nagged, emasculated husband who enviously proclaims he'll die happy once he persuades the council to lock the park gates after dark.The play is a tragicomic 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. And it asks you to contemplate the dread possibility that, in this capitulation, he may have found his rightful level.

George Dillon is an unsuccessful actor and aspiring dramatist 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 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 graciously allowing them the privilege of subsidising him.

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 confronted with intelligent, effective female opposition. This comes in the shape of the mother's attractive divorced sister, Ruth, an intellectual who has just extricated herself from both the Communist Party and a six-year affair with another struggling author.

Some may find an added frisson in the fact that Francesca Annis is the well-known older lover of Joseph's brother, Ralph. But that's an irrelevance, for she 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.It's a turning point when she issues the challenge that he should stop blaming the public and lay his art on the line.

Left to his own devices, Osborne tended to produce dramas monopolised by motormouth protagonists. Gill's production demonstrates that this collaborative work is a genuine ensemble piece. The dynamics of the family, where the mother is in the peculiar position of being the home-owner, are perceptively evoked, with Anne Reid's superb performance as Mrs Elliot showing the determined, controlling streak in this deceptively shallow, prattling creature. That the play leaves you guessing as to whether George had genuine promise or not adds to the desolation of its close. Presented with the gift of a typewriter, a pained Fiennes freezes at the unconscious tactlessness of the gesture.

There was a single hiccup on press night. We're used to Osborne heroes who fly off the handle, but when a door jammed at a sexually vital moment, this hero managed to pull off its handle. Rather than find some other route to the staircase, Fiennes elected to lure his conquest out through the kitchen, quite as though George kept his etchings in the rhubarb patch.

Booking to 14 January 2006 (0870 060 6637)