Michael Portillo - Cuckoo in the nest

Theatre - Joseph Fiennes leads a tale of adoption and frustration. By Michael Portillo

Epitaph

John Osborne's most famous stage creation, Jimmy Porter, was an angry young man. George Dillon (anti-hero of this earlier play) is a self-obsessed failure, snob, philanderer - and playwright. Osborne co-wrote Epitaph for George Dillon with Anthony Creighton in 1955, but it premiered only in 1958. By then, Osborne's solo work Look Back in Anger had been a runaway success. George Dillon is quite a good play, but whether it would have made it to the stage without Osborne's intermediate rise to fame must be debatable.

The writers take their time establishing the Elliotts as a thoroughly average and dull lower-middle-class family. The house is orderly but crowded, as Mrs Elliott's sister, Ruth Gray, lives with the family. Ruth is college-educated and clearly quite different from her sister and two nieces. She does not sustain herself with the stream of cliches about life and the weather that nourish the Elliotts. From the outset we know that this divorcee has just reached the end of an unsatisfying affair, and finds herself trapped, through lack of money, in her sister's house.

Percy Elliott and his wife have no relationship left. No "please" or "thank you" ever escapes his lips as his wife produces his meals and cups of tea. But he is more abused than abusing. Mrs Elliott owns the house, and treats him like an insecure tenant. He is an object of contempt to the four women who share his home.

Mrs Elliott mourns a son, Raymond, lost during the war. At the tedious office where she works she has befriended a struggling actor and writer who becomes Raymond's substitute. George Dillon is invited to join the household without charge, and the late son's savings will pay for his cigarettes and other necessities. At first George appears humble and suitably grateful for the woman's affection and generosity. But Percy, at least, has no doubt that he is a user and sponger.

Anne Reid is magnificent as the irrepressibly cheerful Mrs Elliott. She is in constant motion around the set, endlessly laying tables, making tea and producing food. She fills every quiet moment with chatter. She somehow blots out the mounting evidence of George's worthlessness. She remains unaware that he views her family with utter contempt. Perhaps that's because it was always Mrs Elliott's plan that George should marry her younger daughter, Josie (played by Zoe Tapper).

Ruth alone is capable of speaking on George's wavelength. Like Percy (Geoffrey Hutchings), she sees through George, but that does not stop her falling for him. She has a weak spot for artists, not that there is much independent evidence, for all his self-pitying soliloquies, that George actually is one. Francesca Annis handles the complicated part well, even if her peals of laughter during George's rants are not wholly convincing.

Although the writers have a wonderful ear for the banalities of people like the Elliotts, there are real problems with the play's structure. The action is interrupted by three incongruous visitations. Mr Colwyn-Stuart (Hugh Simon) is an evangelical Christian who calls to take Mrs Elliott to a meeting. It provides a contrived opportunity for George to denounce religion and all who "drug themselves up with myths". The man from the National Assistance Board calls to assess George's application for state aid (fancy that, they used to make house calls!). And a theatre impresario arrives to counsel George on how to improve his writing. He advises him that his play has structural weaknesses, overly long speeches and a limp third act. That is a good summary of the deficiencies that afflict George Dillon.

Such oddities in the play's composition make diffi-culties for the show's star, Joseph Fiennes. It is perhaps typical of him that he should wish to take on the challenge of such a tortured and unattractive character. His performance is adequate, but not exactly breathtaking. Fiennes is a gifted actor on stage and film, but those buying tickets for George Dillon in the hope that he will be as captivating in the theatre as he is on screen may be disappointed.

The production's designer, John Gunter, produces an excellent set, which in every detail evokes the 1950s. If, like me, you lived during those days the memory does not provoke nostalgia: it makes you cringe. My parents had a cocktail cabinet like that, with a mirrored lid and interior. It was full of gaudy coloured cocktail forks, useful for spearing olives. Why did they have it, since, like the Elliotts, they never touched spirits? Thank goodness that, unlike the Elliotts, they felt no need for antimacassars, china dogs or paintings of flying ducks.

Booking on 0870 060 6637 until 14 January