The Sixties – the easing of an ossified nation or the moment the rot set in?
In Edward Bond's view from 1965, vividly recreated with the first revival for 25 years of his once banned Saved, it was the beginning of the end of civilisation. He has sanctioned this new production at a time when his apocalyptic vision could seem to have been outstripped by reality and the country is in the grip of a government he considers "the worst since the 1930s".
In Saved, he opens the door on to an isolated, invisible working class (and there is work, however dull), which enlivens drab days with mutual contempt and sex with strangers. In a loveless home and featureless community, uninformed but by the babble of radio, television and the parallel world of the Radio Times, boy-hungry Pam bags sex-hungry Len but longs for verminous Fred. Her parents, old soldier Harry and vacant housewife Mary, do not speak to each other. Others speak, but say nothing, held back by lack of vocabulary and ideas. Bond has an ear for the meaningless non sequitur and the disarming revelation: "Yer never killed yer man," unflappable Harry tells Len. "Gives yer a sense a perspective. I was one of the lucky ones."
With no war of their own to fight, Fred and his unsavoury mates prowl, high on testosterone. Something terrible will happen, if a number of circumstances combine. The scene in which uncomprehending braggards, vying to outdo each other, mock, abuse and stone to death a neglected baby, brought down the Lord Chamberlain's axe. And although it was viewed on first night in pin-drop silence, few today would be outraged by Bond's hellish scene.
This nightmare of ill-matched couples, rude mechanicals and, ultimately, uneasy emptiness is starkly directed by Sean Holmes with outstanding performances from, in particular, Morgan Watkins as Len, who alone looks beyond the moment and grows, Michael Feast as Harry, and Lia Saville, whose Pam ages at such tragic speed. So, how shocking is Bond's dystopia? Well, there are no drugs or alcohol, no obesity, no junk food, no online grooming, no designer tat. He has written a passionate polemic to introduce this production. Perhaps now we need him to write another play.
In the same year as Saved, Frank Marcus's comedy The Killing of Sister George raised eyebrows with a lesbian couple as the central characters. But in Iqbal Khan's heavy-handed production, galumphing Meera Syal as the doomed district nurse in an Archers-style radio soap – a character so irritating she should have been pushed under the first tractor in episode one – and shrill Elizabeth Cadwallader, as her abused younger lover, make a mockery of same-sex love. Only Belinda Lang as the BBC's angel of death, an icicle from Admin, and Helen Lederer's highly coloured clairvoyant briefly resuscitate this flat-liner.
And what of those beacons of the Sixties, The Beatles? While Saved and Sister George were opening, the band was releasing "Ticket to Ride", "Help!" and Rubber Soul. But in Backbeat, based on the film of the same name, the Fab Four are just starting life as the faking-it five, Lennon teaching his idol, promising art student Stuart Sutcliffe, the three chords with which he will bluff his way to Hamburg, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.
To get a whole show out of a footnote that pre-dates the great Lennon-McCartney songbook is ambitious. But with Nick Blood as the desirable Sutcliffe and Ruta Gedmintas as girlfriend Astrid, the high-energy performances of Andrew Knott (John) and Daniel Healy (Paul) in the up-tempo early numbers, and quickfire direction by David Leveaux, Backbeat wrings everything it can out of a brief episode. Nostalgic for oldies, illuminating for the young, sadly its sex scenes make it unfit for a family outing.
The liberated and educated working class so movingly envisaged in The Pitmen Painters bears little relation to the ignorant underclass of Saved. Lee Hall's portrait of the Ashington Group, now in the West End, tells the true story of a 1930s mining community. Signed up for art appreciation classes, men who left school at 11 are underwhelmed by their evening-class lecturer, until he sees that their route to understanding art is to make it themselves.
A brief novelty for an heiress collector, a calling card for the academic headed for higher things, the group can enjoy self-development but little material gain. Their greatest treasure is their belief in nationalisation, the NHS, mass education and the redistribution of wealth. "No one's going to be satisfied with coming off their shift and vegetating!" cries one idealist. And no one foresees library closures, Big Brother or a million young unemployed. With winning and tender performances all round and the seamless, respectful direction of Max Roberts, this heartwarming, heartbreaking modern classic encapsulates one recession and reaches out to another.
'Saved' (0871 2211 729) to 5 Nov; 'The Killing of Sister George' (020-7907 7092) to 29 Oct; 'Backbeat' (0844 871 7623) to 24 Mar; 'The Pitmen Painters' (020-7452 3000) to 21 Jan
Kate Bassett gets Jumpy at the Royal Court Downstairs
Mark Rylance is back gloriously playing the maverick gypsy Johnny Rooster Byron, in Jez Butterworth's darkening comedy, Jerusalem, at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue (to 12 Jan). Queue for returns/day seats for Daniel Kitson's solo show It's Always Right Now Until It's Later: exquisitely funny and touching glimpses of ordinary lives (Wed-Fri).