Epitaph for George Dillon, Comedy, London<br></br> Much Ado About Nothing, Crucible, Sheffield

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The Independent Culture

Indeed, George is a swanky but struggling thesp with ambitions to be a great dramatist. Reduced to renting a room on the outskirts of London - all anti-macassars and china ornaments - he exudes smiling charm while, in fact, callously sponging off his mothering landlady, Mrs Elliot. He secretly scorns her stupidity and proprieties then gets her daughter, Josie, in the family way when his more serious flirting with her smart educated aunt, Ruth, goes woundingly awry. In the end, he may be trapped here forever, facing embittered mediocrity, scribbling tat for commercial tours.

This play and Peter Gill's direction are often delightfully funny, sharply observed and tense. Anne Reid is wonderful as the wittering Mrs Elliot, risibly petty yet touchingly generous, and Geoffrey Hutchings is hilariously curmudgeonly as her husband, Percy. Setting aside the casting's added frisson - Fiennes stealing a kiss from his brother Ralph's partner - Francesca Annis' Ruth has magnetic elegance and palpable buried pain. However, she slightly milks one or two moments and, personally, I found Joseph Fiennes almost unwatchable. He did cope brilliantly with the press-night nightmare of a door handle coming off in his hand, swiftly determining to turn Josie's seduction into an on-the-hop kitchen-sink affair if the bed was going to play hard to get. The rest of the time, however, he lacks edge and wit and is a mass of exaggerated mannerisms.

Granted, George is meant to be a theatrical poseur but Fiennes whole performance - including villainous scowls - looks hammy. Osborne's games with art and life work far better in The Entertainer and this play oscillates between old-fashioned creakiness and riveting slices of life.

Meanwhile Sam West's regime at the Crucible, post-Michael Grandage, got off to a shaky start with Shakespeare's Much Ado, staged without much of a clue by West's new associate, Josie Rourke. This Victorian period production is too often saccharine and dull. West's military Benedick looks regrettably stolid and he and Claire Price's Beatrice, in their verbal fencing, adopt a tiresome smart Alec manner.

Thankfully, Nicholas Jones shines out as Beatrice's grief-stricken uncle. Price and West also grow more intense, when facing disaster, and are amusingly wry afterwards. Maybe the season, with West directing The Romans In Britain, will go from strength to strength too.

'Epitaph...': to 14 Jan, 0870 060 6637; 'Much Ado': to 5 Nov, 0114 249 6000