NSFW, Royal Court Downstairs, London
deadkidsongs, Ustinov Studios, Bath
Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre, London

Lucy Kirkwood's witty media satire takes an astute look at sexism in the magazine industry

On a shelf in the editor's office sits a "Do not disturb" sign, seemingly forgotten. Julian Barratt's Aidan hasn't thought to hang it on his door in Lucy Kirkwood's edgy new satire NSFW (acronym for "Not Safe for Work" in online parlance). As the commissioning editor at Doghouse, a fictional lads' mag, Aidan is snogging his twentysomething underling, Charlotte, when another young hireling, Rupert, bursts in.

Esther Smith's Charlotte scrambles off the sofa but none of them is terribly embarrassed. Scrupulous professionalism is not expected here. Barratt's scruffy Aidan, in trendy trainers, lets Rupert (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) – a rich kid with a famous pater – give him cheek.

Meanwhile, Oxbridge graduate Charlotte says that, after slave-labour internships, she's not bothered by the rag's sexism so long as her rent is paid. She scarcely bats an eyelid at the poster of a topless model which Aidan sticks on the wall. He declares it sales-boosting, terrific stuff, admiring the girl-next-door quality of the image, which has just won Doghouse's best-boobs photo competition.

He has made a potentially ruinous mistake, however. His picture editor, Sacha Dhawan's Sam, is a nervously assiduous new boy, and the model was underage. To save his own skin, Aidan needs to silence her furiously protesting father (Kevin Doyle).

The strength of NSFW, premiered by director Simon Godwin, lies in its unsettling shifts between office sitcom and seriously unpleasant power games. In a short chamber piece, the writer manages to raise big questions about the fourth estate, dilapidated moral standards, today's financial exigencies, and what's happened to egalitarian feminism. What's more, the ethos is no better when those laid off by Aidan fetch up at a glossy women's mag, only to jump through hoops for Janie Dee's Miranda, a slinky exec who dismisses anyone who questions her narrow definitions of beauty.

In this production, no character is one-dimensionally vile. Dee's hardnosed Miranda suggests self-hatred, and Barratt oscillates between decent impulses and bullying manoeuvres. Under Dominic Cooke's leadership, The Royal Court has promoted female dramatists, and Kirkwood proves rewardingly witty and culturally astute.

In deadkidsongs, based on Toby Litt's novel of the same name, it's the 1970s and a gang of schoolboys are playing war games in the woods. Fantasising about hunting down Ruski invaders, they are led by Andrew whose macho, psychotic dad they naively revere. Adaptor-director Gary Sefton's cast of adult actors somersault and shin up the set's flexing tree trunks, perching in dens amid the branches and rat-a-tat-tatting with their toy guns. With more than a touch of Lord of the Flies and Blue Remembered Hills, this is going to turn horrifically savage.

Sefton reduces all the grown-up characters to wooden, prerecorded voices, and there is a sickening predictability to the gory conclusion when Kate Lamb's Miranda determines to be one of the boys. Nonetheless, this is a powerfully grim piece of theatre, with outstanding performances by Lamb, Colin Ryan as the coerced scaredy-cat Peter, and Leander Deeny as the snuffling, spasmodically feral Andrew.

By contrast, in Uncle Vanya, Doctor Astrov is avidly planting trees to protect the environment and wildlife. This amateur arbiculturalist, campaigning against deforestation, always seems extraordinarily prescient, if not way ahead of his time in Chekhov's portrait of provincial Russian life, from 1899. Alas, much else is snail-paced in Lindsay Posner's star-cast but disappointing West End production.

It looks as if a sizeable copse has been felled to construct the hefty, decoratively carved wooden house on Vanya's family estate and, consequently, every scene change is lumbering (most uncharacteristic for set designer Christopher Oram). The cast's slow pacing is enervating as well, particularly Anna Friel's as the unhappily married beauty, Yelena. There's insufficient simmering passion generated. Everyone's speeches seem oddly disconnected, lacking directorial joined-up thinking.

Only Ken Stott's Vanya manages to build an explosive head of steam, trying to exterminate his infuriatingly successful brother-in-law (Paul Freeman) only to prove a farcically hopeless shot. Act Four is worth the wait, with Stott, Samuel West's Astrov and Laura Carmichael's overlooked Sonya attaining a delicate balance of despair, regret and stoicism. Nonetheless, it's a long haul before that.

Posner's timing is also unfortunate, given that Lucy Bailey's recent off-West End Vanya was sizzlingly intimate and far more witty, and that tomorrow the Vakhtangov Theatre's rival Russian production (see feature, overleaf) opens at the Noel Coward, threatening to steal Posner's thunder.

'NSFW' (020-7565 5000) to 24 Nov; 'deadkidsongs' (01225 448844) to 17 Nov; 'Uncle Vanya' (0844 412 4663) to 16 Feb

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