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A CurtainUp London London Review
Epitaph for George Dillon

Mrs ElliottSurely he could do a job of work?
Ruth: Job of Work? (beat) He's a writer!
Epitaph for George Dillon
Joseph Fienees as George Dillon
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
We may be in for a revival of plays from the 1950s. John Osborne's "first" play to be produced was the ground breaking Look Back In Anger in 1956. The producers were hungry for other works by Osborne and asked whether he had written any other plays. Only then was Epitaph for George Dillon, which Osborne had co-penned with Anthony Creighton, produced, in Oxford. This earlier play then transferred to the Royal Court where the eponymous role was played by the young and charismatic Robert Stephens.

Now Joseph Fiennes arrives in what is his first outing on the West End stage for several years to play alongside his brother's Ralph's partner, Francesca Annis. In one of those history repeating itself things, the Royal Court production of Epitaph for George Dillon transferred to the Comedy Theatre, where it is now playing almost 50 years later.

Epitaph for George Dillon is set in Britain just after the Second World War in house of mainly women. Anne Reid plays Mrs Elliot, a homely woman who has lost her only son in the war. Geoffrey Hutchins is her self-effacing husband. Also in the house us her youngest daughter Josie (Zoë Tapper), frumpy Norah (Dorothy Atkinson) and her sister sophisticate Ruth Gray (Francesca Annis). At work, Mrs Elliot is charmed by a young clerk, George Dillon (Joseph Fiennes), who, at her invitation, moves into the house. George is unemployed but talks of getting work as a writer or actor. He is charming and seductive but feckless and happy to sponge off the doting Elliots.

There are a lot of themes here that were prevalent in the 1950s, the decade between the Second World War and the splendid 1960s. The first few years after the war were ones of rationing and austerity but the economy quickly turned around and in 1957 the British Prime minister Harold Macmillan was declaring to the population, "You've never had it so good!". Hanging over the play is the loss of the Elliot boy, a loss which allows George to establish himself in the son's place.

George's lack of direction and verve, his lack of commitment is an early inkling of Osborne's later "angry young man", Jimmy Porter.

All Osborne's characters shoulder a sense of disappointment, of anti-climax, that peace time ought to be so much better. Francesca Annis' Ruth is an elegant and attractive woman who cannot settle for or compromise for the tedious existence of her sister, but instead finds herself cynical and disappointed. It is only with Ruth that George drops the pretence and reveals the extent of his own cynicism. Together they are two lost souls.

It is a pleasure to see Joseph Fiennes back on stage but somehow the part seems not to fit him well. I cannot quite put my finger on what didn't take off for me but maybe the writing is not the most dynamic. There is however the most wonderful final speech from George as he plays out his life and gives the play its title, but it is a long time to wait for this moment. The beautiful Francesca Annis is of course delightful as the fashionable and unhappy Ruth, her dark eyes full of passion and pain. Anne Reid excels as one of these aproned women who work hard and care for their families with little reward other than virtue itself.

The box set is ideal at recreating a 1950s house with attention to detail, yet avoiding cliché. The room is dominated by the ghastly cloudscape painting by the dead son. We can see the stairs and the front door and the door to the kitchen, all giving a sense of the claustrophobia of living at such close quarters. Peter Gill is an expert at directing this type of play but despite all the accurate echoes of the 1950s, the play itself fails to involve us in its outcomes.

Written by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton
Directed by Peter Gill

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Francesca Annis
With: Anne Reid, Geoffrey Hutchings, Hugh Simon, Zoë Tapper, Dorothy Atkinson, Alex Dunbar, Stephen Greif
Design: John Gunter
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone
Music compiled by David Shrubsole
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6637
Booking at the Comedy Theatre to 14th January 2005
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th September 2005 at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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