London’s commercial theater aims commendably high with “Epitaph for George Dillon,” John Osborne’s early play about a young actor-writer whose fate can be foretold from the title. What can’t be gleaned in advance are the pleasures of a typically scrupulous production from Peter Gill, even if Joseph Fiennes’ strenuous appropriation of the title role isn’t first among them. Show gets a weighty West End autumn season off to a start as uncompromising as co-star Francesca Annis’ eyebrows. Older playgoers will be especially pleased.
Osborne wrote the play with Anthony Creighton in 1955. But it wasn’t until after the dramatist’s career-defining solo success in 1956 with “Look Back in Anger” that “Epitaph for George Dillon” surfaced in 1958 at that play’s original London home, the Royal Court.
Since then, “Anger” protag Jimmy Porter has been revisited far more regularly than Dillon, who is cut from the same feisty authorial cloth. One sees flickers of Jimmy’s celebrated spleen in the handsome boarder George, who’s all but poisoned by his own passions.
Whereas “Look Back in Anger” can devolve into an extended (if entertaining) one-man rant, however, “Epitaph” finds Osborne in unusually egalitarian mode. Nine characters all get a chance to claim the stage in ways not merely reactive. And when George does let rip, his bile as often as not is directed against himself: This epitaph begins at home.
Helmer Gill saw the original production as a young actor in London, and his staging gently revels in the re-creation of a bygone era. On a John Gunter set exuding faded gentility with every tired, plumped cushion, the Elliot family responds first to the advent of television and then the telephone, not to mention the arrival in their midst of the hyper-solicitous George. (“Very kind” would seem to be his mantra, however misleading it may be.)
And though Mrs. Elliot (Anne Reid, late of “The Mother,” in a standout turn) speaks of George as the next Olivier, younger sister Ruth (Annis) sees right through him.
“You’re burning yourself, and for what?” Ruth asks a struggling artist whose enthusiasms run counter to her own decidedly slow, deliberate gait. And yet, in a long first-act encounter anticipating the self-destructive symbiosis Osborne would perfect in “Anger,” the pair comprise a pointed and poignant match. In Ruth’s words, “they’re two rather lost people, nothing extraordinary” — the very condition to which the doomed George aspires.
The play in many ways couldn’t be more English, and yet the fevered pulse of the American drama of the period can be felt coursing through it. Enthusing girlishly about “the man from the office,” Reid’s Mrs. Elliot suggests an Anglicized Amanda Wingfield, eagerly awaiting her own Gentleman Caller. (She dismisses her husband, a drolly dyspeptic Geoffrey Hutchings, as “just the lodger here.”)
Later, advancing on Ruth with “a feeling we were the same kind,” George conjures a more aesthetically minded Stanley Kowalski, his brutishness carefully papered over by bravado. That sense of danger, in turn, is the very arena in which Fiennes lets the part down. Though the actor’s height leaves him towering over everyone but Annis, he doesn’t cut to the caustic quick of a character who has responded to life’s abrasions with a ferocity all his own.
His doe-eyed demeanor serves him well in the incipient mating dance with Annis. But Osborne’s characters exist to embrace contradiction, which isn’t Fiennes’ way. He’s a likable enough presence in a role in which likeability is scarcely the point.
Happily, the play’s structure can, and does, withstand a hole at its center. The three men who drop into the action at brief and varying points are all well taken, with Stephen Greif’s Hitler-loving agent the showiest cameo of the lot. Playing the more drab of the two Elliot daughters, Dorothy Atkinson makes visible the abject romantic past of a lovelorn soul. (Her fate was to fall for a guy who got on a bus going the opposite direction.) As our antihero’s eventually pregnant prey, Zoe Tapper hints at a solipsism to rival George’s own: Upon hearing of George’s tuberculosis, she first wants to know, “What’s going to happen to me?”
The answer, in George’s case, is implicit in the title of a play that contains its own requiem. But where most writers would leave an audience weeping for George, Osborne and Creighton are having none of that. “He loved no one successfully,” a clear-eyed George says of himself at the end of a production that serious-minded auds will be hard-pressed not to like.