Sweet Panic, Albery Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

When I reviewed the Hampstead premiere of this Stephen Poliakoff play, I wrote that it would have everything to gain from being adapted for television. There are sequences - such as the spooky final confrontation in the concrete catacombs under Marble Arch - that need the combination of landmark actuality and eerily infused atmosphere that you can evoke on film.

Now, seven years on, Sweet Panic is about to be filmed for television. But here's the twist. Before the cameras roll, the same cast is starring in this absorbing West End revival of the piece directed by the author. A case of making practice pay in every sense, this double-jointed project would bring a song to the heart of any time-and-motion expert.

The very idea of a "professional expert" becomes anathema to Mrs Trevel, the self-styled "mother from hell" whose fixated fury drives this drama. Clare, the assured, sympathetic psychiatrist who sees her 11-year-old son, has the misfortune to be out of town on the Bank Holiday weekend when the overprotected boy goes briefly missing. Mrs T exacts her revenge by harassing and stalking the poor shrink. As she demands to be handed her son's files, it's evident that nothing will satisfy her but smashing Clare's mask of professional composure to smithereens.

Sweet Panic is a play that gives two accomplished actresses the chance to show their stuff. Jane Horrocks is authentically unsettling as Mrs Trevel, the posh, buttoned-up housewife who would be deeply ordinary if it weren't for the deranged streak and inexorable manner. She's perhaps a little too poised in her cool enjoyment of the discomfiture that she is causing, but her layered portrayal helps alert you to the fact that there is often a lot of sense in what this recklessly candid woman is saying.

Victoria Hamilton turns in a beautiful performance as the shrink, exuding warmth, honesty and sensitivity that are tried to breaking point.

Not taut enough to be a psychological thriller and too tolerant to be a satire, the play is a ragbag of ideas. Some of it strains credulity. It's hard to believe that Clare's relationship with her nerdy boyfriend (John Gordon Sinclair) survived the first date. But the idea that the speed of technological change makes it hard to imagine what our children's lives are like is a sound one.

The notion that it would help our offspring if we owned up to the panic and ignorance that cower behind our show of control strikes me as less plausible than it did in 1996. And I still think that Sweet Panic will work best as a film.

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