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 that need the combination of landmark actuality and eerily infused atmosphere that you can accomplish on film. Seven years on, Sweet Panic is about to be filmed for TV. But here's the twist. First, the cast is starring in this captivating 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 sympathetic psychiatrist who sees her 11-year-old son, has the misfortune to be out of town and incommunicado on the bank-holiday weekend when the overprotected boy goes briefly missing. Mrs T exacts her revenge by stalking the poor shrink, who clearly represents every professional who has ever riled her with their supposedly specialised know-how. As she demands to be handed her son's files and the tapes of his sessions, it is evident that nothing will satisfy the woman but smashing Clare's mask of competence to smithereens.
Sweet Panic gives two talented actresses the chance to show their stuff in a compelling battle of wills. A far cry from Bubble in AbFab, Jane Horrocks is unsettling as the plummy Mrs Trevel - an avenging angel,who disarms you as much by her terrible self-awareness as by her deranged determination. She is perhaps a little too poised in her enjoyment of the discomfiture she causes, but Horrocks's layered portrayal alerts you to the fact that there is often a lot of sense in what this recklessly candid woman says.
As her victim, Victoria Hamilton turns in a beautiful performance, exuding a warmth, honesty and sensitivity that are tried to breaking point. This character switches into monologues where she impersonates her young patients and gives us access to their inner lives. But though Hamilton delivers these solos with empathy, the convention is gratingly theatrical. Why is Clare sometimes aware that there is an audience? And why is she prepared to infringe the code of professional confidentiality?
Too digressive to be a psychological thriller and too tolerant to be a satire on the tensions between expertise and childhood in the contemporary world, the play is a generous ragbag of ideas. Some of it strains credulity. Mrs Trevel's obsessions are too obviously a compendium of the issues Poliakoff wants to raise - from the pernicious spread of focus groups to the question of whether there was ever a golden age of childhood. It is hard, too, to believe that Clare's relationship with her nerdy boyfriend (John-Gordon Sinclair) survived the first date. If to the audience it is immediately obvious that a handsome former patient (Rupert Evans radiating need) is not the success story he claims, why is Clare slower on the uptake?
The idea that the speed of technological change makes it increasingly hard to imagine what our children's lives are like is a genuinely suggestive one and would have been reinforced by discussion of the net and the danger of chatrooms, had Poliakoff been writing the play today. By contrast, 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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