You can bet your bottom dollar that American family life, amid the white trash of North Carolina, will turn intensely nasty in The Dead Eye Boy. This is Angus MacLachlan's off-Broadway hit, now enjoying its British premiere.
Scarcely has single mother Shirley-Diane whooped about getting engaged to Billy (a fellow recovering drug addict), than she says she may rip the heart out of him. When her delinquent son, Soren, starts toying with a claw hammer, you could accuse MacLachlan of laying on menace with a trowel.
Yet this is a domestic drama full of genuine shocks which grows into a modern tragedy about the persistence of love, chemical addictions and wounding memories. Director Jennie Darnell's excellent cast reveals psychological complexities and, in spite of horrors, inspire hope and sympathy. Brendan Coyle's Billy has brutal tendencies but is devoted to Nicola Walker's Shirley-Diane, a giggling free spirit and chronically bad parent. Fine work which deserves a West End transfer.
This is your last chance to see South Africa's acclaimed John Kani and Winston Ntshona in The Island. Athol Fugard's anti-apartheid two-hander, devised with these actors 30 years ago, depicts black prisoners on Robben Island. In the programme notes, Peter Brook recalls how this play "burst into the Royal Court theatre like a bomb" in 1973, starting with a crushingly precise mime of hard labour. Subsequent scenes centre on the duo's preparations for a revue where they'll boldly perform the legend of Antigone.
The Island doesn't feel so explosive today. Kani and Ntshona no longer risk actual incarceration back home for their acts of defiance – a great political relief. And maybe the fact that they're charmingly chubby now makes the opening mime less harrowing. Their comic approach can seem just endearing. However, poignancy and resilience underlie this celebration of the struggle. With headlines about shackled detainees at Guantanamo Bay, The Island might strike some as topical as well. Ultimately, this production's strength lies in its timeless image of two men squatting under a burning sun, and in the continuing brio of Kani and Ntshona.
At the Roundhouse we find another new work which, like The Dead Eye Boy, involves an offspring, a fatality and painful flashbacks. The difference is Written with Light is a promenade installation followed by a performance featuring puppeteering, recorded voices and photosensitive paper. Moreover this show, by Fevered Sleep, is an evening of terribly high contrasts – exhilarating one minute, inept the next.
The location is thrilling. In the vaults under the Roundhouse, you wander past dark tunnels and though narrowing brick chambers. Turning corners, you're startled by pacing Victorian gents or a living woman's head atop a seemingly empty box. One blind alley is full of school desks and reverberates with playground screams. A child's luminous face emanates from a wall.
These visuals and soundscapes by Sam Butler (who co-designed with writer-director David Harradine) are tremendously eerie and mournful. But the evening nosedives when the "theatrics" begin at the maze's centre. A modern-day woman pulls anxious faces as rambling diary entries explain she's lost her memory. She is haunted by a small red duffle coat – purloined from the movie, Don't Look Now – and she flicks through a history of photography. Fuzzy comparisons are drawn between cerebral retention and celluloid. Also, it's freezing in there. I survived by envisaging something dramatically hotter in the future.
'The Dead Eye Boy': Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), to 9 Feb; 'The Island': Old Vic, London SE1 (020 7369 1722), to 13 April; 'Written with Light': Roundhouse, London NW1 (020 7420 0171), to 3 Feb