The National Theatre is reaching out to the teen generation with three hour-long plays that home in on key moments in the transition to adulthood. The best thing about them is that they are punchy without being preachy; they tackle moral issues, without moralising.
First commissioned by the NT's Connections programme, they are here presented with bite and bounce by young actors in sharp productions by Paul Miller that revel in the stylistic individuality of each piece.
Roy Williams's Baby Girl manages to be both funny and concerned about the pressures put on the young by a sexualised society. Teased for remaining a virgin, 13-year-old Kellie (Candassaie Liburd) ends up pregnant by Nathan (Winston Sarpong), a boy of the same age. Both are repeating family patterns. Her mother (Petra Letang) had Kellie when she was 13 and there's a volatile mix of sexual competitiveness, schadenfreude and empathy in her attitude to the girl. Williams applauds Kellie's spirit while leaving a question mark over whether she can break the cycle.
In DNA, Dennis Kelly offers a balefully witty take on the dark side of group mentality. A gang of teenagers believe that they have hounded a boy to his death and go to disturbing lengths to cover it up. A camera prowls eerily through a wood on the video footage.
Ruby Bentall is wonderfully funny as Lea, who can't stop rabbiting on about life and the universe in a double-act with the silent Phil (splendid Sam Crane), the brains of the brigade who winds up incommunicado to a tragic degree.
Bentall makes another strong impression as Veronica, the 12-year-old whose "special powers" of diagnosis and healing, in Lin Coghlan's play The Miracle, expose her to the ridicule of a community that is coping with an unhinged young soldier recently returned from Iraq. If the message is articulated perhaps too explicitly by the play's narrator, the strange story gives inspiring expression to the idea that we should never close our minds to visions beyond the ordinary.
Nicholas de Jongh, drama critic of the Evening Standard, has never been afraid of making theatrical enemies. He may now make a few more with a play that belies the usual prejudices against him. Plague Over England is not only wittily knowing, as one might expect from the author of books on gay theatre; it's also alive to pain, open to vulnerability and generous in spirit.
The author uses the arrest of John Gielgud in 1953 on a charge of importuning in a Chelsea lavatory as the point for an examination of the homophobic witch-hunt at the time. The great actor faced ruin, but the British public proved more staunch than some of his gay allies.
The play imagines the copper who entrapped the actor as a working-class gay lad who has an affair with the son of a high court judge. Moving between Establishment clubs and "queer" bars, between Government offices and the Chelsea urinal, and between the theatre and the real world, the play often pursues its argument through eloquently counterpointed scenes.
True, De Jongh's touch is sometimes clumsy. But it's a drama that can move you to tears, as when Jasper Britton's superb Gielgud breaks down before Nichola McAuliffe's Sybil Thorndike, who tells him, not without justice, that he's "a silly bugger". Jumping forward to 1975 in a dream-sequence, there's a sense of parades that are just starting and parades that have gone by.
'Baby Girl'/'The Miracle'/'DNA' to 10 April (020-7452 3000); 'Plague Over England' to 22 March (0844 847 1652)Reuse content