September 29, 2005
Epitaph for George Dillon
Benedict Nightingale at Comedy, SW1
John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, anti-hero of Look Back in Anger, is intelligent, opinionated, self-pitying, obnoxious and pretty similar to his author. George Dillon, anti-hero of the earlier play Osborne wrote in cahoots with a fellow actor (and some say lover) called Anthony Creighton, is that too, but slyer, less passionate and, though he keeps his feelings better hidden, rather less attractive than ranting Jimmy or even openly cantankerous John.
Still, it’s a good part, and excellently played by Joseph Fiennes. With his dark eyes receding to the back of a skull that hovers above the skeletal body that tapers up inside a period duffle coat, he looks the frustrated actor and writer he is meant to be. He sounds it too, exuding a lugubrious sensitivity, plus unease, restlessness, suppressed bitterness, everything bar the “mentally picaresque dishonesty” the stage directions inscrutably demand.
In 1955, when Osborne wrote the play, he was himself a jobbing actor and aspiring dramatist who, like George, was unsure if he had real talent. Indeed, what gives Dillon its interest today is that it embodies the insecurity and fear of the ambitious but unrecognised. “I spend my life next to a phone and every time it rings it ’s death for me,” wails Fiennes, letting slip a desperation Osborne must have shared.
But lonely desperation requires a dramatic context, and here gets one resembling the digs where the actor Osborne stayed on tour or the glum lower-middle-class Fulham terrace where he grew up.
George becomes a non-paying lodger in a house occupied by Anne Reid’s homely, maternal Mrs Elliot, Geoffrey Hutchings as her mean-spirited husband, Zoe Tapper as Josie, their lively but empty-headed daughter, and Dorothy Atkinson as her sister Norah, who, says George, doesn’t even exist: she’s a “hole in the air”.
This is where the play becomes deeply unappealing. In conversations with Francesca Annis’s Ruth, the only sophisticated family member, George dismisses all these people as “caricatures” whose main use (it seems) is that he can batten off them. And Osborne’s attitude to this insufferable superiority? Well, he allows the women some warmth, but his heart and mind are with his alter ego, George Dillon.
Moreover, if they are caricatures, who made them so? Osborne of course. And who else created the play’s crudest caricature, Stephen Greif’s Barney, the sleazy, Hitler- loving agent who steals George’s alleged integrity? Yes, the would-be dramatist becomes a sell-out both to the commercial theatre and to the Elliots’ supposed mediocrity; but it’s hard to care. He was a stinker to begin with.
Book on www.timesonline.co.uk/boxoffice.
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