The grim reaper stalked the stage in various guises last week. In Leeds, And All The Children Cried is an investigative drama about women who – against all nurturing instincts – commit infanticide. In a jointly signed programme note, the high-profile sociologist Beatrix Campbell and her co-writer Judith Jones, a social worker, declare that their aim in this (their first) play has been, "to discover whether themes which in their experience seemed untellable and unwatchable could be tolerated as theatre." That sounds fearlessly pioneering and the piece promises revelations about the psyche of such characters and their possibly formative unhappy childhoods. You might be additionally intrigued because the director is Annie Castledine who, with the playwright Bryony Lavery, grippingly adapted Goliath, Campbell's book about Britain's 1991 inner-city riots.
Here, we find ourselves in jail with Myra (based on Hindley) and Gail, who talks of having smothered her offspring. Both are preparing to plead before a parole board. We see each rehearsing her presentation, then the pair form a brief, hesitant friendship while waiting to hear if they'll be released.
Sharon Maughan's Myra appears cool, smart, tidy, super-controlled – like some corporate career woman. She gives little away, is expressionless. Gill Wright's Gail, meanwhile, comes across as a dowdy, hunched emotional mess from a deprived background. She hears voices from her abused childhood, has manic fits, is more confessional. She seems like a hysterical little girl attracted to Myra's tower of strength.
The trouble is that this dramatisation – without Lavery on board – feels awkward. The obvious contrasts between our protagonists seem theatrically exaggerated when you really want documentary-style accuracy. In one flashback to her trial, with a melodramatic voice-over by a crushing male lawyer, Wright's Gail stands on a chair, knees buckling like an embarrassing cartoon of terror.
Elsewhere, speeches sound like authentic criminals' and analysts' statements, only they're forced unnaturally into a Myra-Gail dialogue. But there are successfully stylised and complex moments. Wright is disturbingly amusing and aggressive dancing like a jubilant kid to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive". But Maughan's Myra is wearisomely cold and remains a largely blank mask. So much for the untellable. Euripides wrote a far more searing, searching tragedy about a child-killer – Medea – over 2,000 years ago.
We move on to genocide, or rather to those who've narrowly escaped it, in The Lucky Ones. Charlotte Eilenberg's commendable first play opens in a London garden in 1968. Margot Leicester's homely Anna Mosenthal is preparing an alfresco lunch. Her husband, David Horovitch's Bruno, lies on the picnic rug, humorously grousing about his adolescent daughter. But when their old friends, Leo and Ottilie – also survivors of the Holocaust – arrive, mixing business, pleasure and memories creates tension.
Anton Lesser's wiry Leo is eager to sell their shared New Forest cottage to a Mrs Lisa Pendry for an inflated price. He has none of Anna's nostalgia for the place nor any of Bruno's scruples. But after Kelly Hunter's Lisa turns out to be a fellow ex-Berliner whose father may have profited from buying Leo's erstwhile Jewish family business, Lesser proves the one with the fiercest sense of right and past wrongs.
This piece is well structured with droll scenes invaded by aggression. At times it's too schematic and Leo's insistence on a sale-clinching apology for all Nazi era crimes seems a strained domestic parallel for state-level debates. Nonetheless, this is an intelligent play about people's romantic and pragmatic instincts, about morals vs materialism, xenophobia and what we inherit. This playwright has an ear for dialogue and knows her Jewish social types, as do many of the regulars at this theatre where Eilenberg has hitherto worked as a press officer.
In Matthew Lloyd's production, Hunter milks her moments of suppressed pain. But Leicester is superb: warm and sturdy with flashes of callousness. Lesser exposes Leo's griefs with startling intensity and, 30 years on, James Clyde is equally fine as his bolshy, wounded son.
Racism, including anti-Semitism, rears its ugly head again in Kosher Harry. This zany dark comedy by Nick Peaches Grosso is set in a faded diner in St John's Wood. An anonymous, scruffy little man (Martin Freeman) casually wanders in only to be targeted by a knock-kneed, motor-mouthed, insanely wanton waitress (Claudie Blakley). She jabbers about tarty immigrants from "Brata bleedin slava". Next thing you know an obnoxious cabbie (blubbery Mark Benton) is banging on about "Pakis" and insulting the selectively deaf, viciously jealous old Jewish woman (June Watson) whom he chauffeurs. If there's a serious message, it's that mindless racial hatred is running mad in England (not just France).
Kosher Harry often seems more like an over-extended comic sketch. However, Grosso is startling in grafting hilariously hopeless chat-up lines (his forte) on to surreal scenarios and an almost Jonsonian satire of lust and greed. Kathy Burke's direction is terrifically snappy and stylish and Freeman is a brilliantly funny clown, reacting to his raving companions with endless jerky frowns, smiles and shrugs – like a behavioural flicker book.
In Antony and Cleopatra, chilly Octavius Caesar doesn't appreciate interracial love when Shakespeare's titular hero – besotted by the serpent of old Nile – lets his duties as triumvir go hang. Antony's holiday humour ultimately, of course, proves fatal. Michael Attenborough's underpowered RSC production, if nothing else, strongly contrasts the two cultures. Rome is strict, monochrome, minimalist. Egypt is decadently luxurious, colourful, flowing with booze. And Stuart Wilson's Antony has clearly gone native, lounging in a sarong, bare chested and long-haired.
Unfortunately, the usually fine designer Es Devlin has cobbled together a bizarrely ugly Alexandrian palace. Scattered with bog-standard ethnic cushions, it looks like a hippy squat with Antony as chief beatnik.
Physically, Wilson certainly has great warmth and the weightiness of a warrior going to seed, but vocally he's thin, without resonance. Sinead Cusack grows quietly poignant in her final moments as Queen, but never captures the girlish charm or comedy of Cleopatra's flighty theatrics. Let's hope Attenborough's imminent tenure at the Almeida in London fares better.
The beleaguered Adrian Noble officially resigned as the RSC's artistic director before press night. Otherwise, one might have thought this production was the straw that broke the camel's back.
'And All The Children Cried': West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700), to 11 May; 'The Lucky Ones': Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), to 1 June; 'Kosher Harry': Royal Court Upstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5050), to 11 May; 'Antony and Cleopatra': Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 403403), to 13 JulyReuse content