Theatre Sweet Panic Hampstead Theatre, London

'The play once again demonstrates Poliakoff's sharp eye for the less acknowledged signs of the times'
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The Independent Culture
For an avenging angel, Mrs Trevel may lack a certain sartorial flamboyance, yet there's something about the way that she's bundled up in a black mac on a hot summer's day that suggests you'd be foolish to vex her. A fussing, over-protective, middle-class mother, whom Saskia Reeves plays with a wonderful mix of eccentric intensity and perspiring self-embarrassment, Mrs T cannot calm down after the trauma she's just suffered when her schoolboy son went missing for two days. Instead, she takes out her rage on Clare, the son's elegantly composed psychologist (Harriet Walter).

The pretext is that Clare, falsely denying possession of a mobile phone, was uncontactable over the fateful bank holiday weekend. But it gradually emerges that the psychologist has come to stand for every professional that Mrs Trevel has had to deal with and the housewife's aim, unformulated at first, is to smash through the career woman's mask of competence. Taking place in a world where people want services and solutions more quickly than ever, and where the speed of technological change makes it hard to predict what our children's lives will look like, the play suggests that admitting to ignorance might be the best basis from which to try to help the young.

It's a point worth debating, though by the end of Sweet Panic, you may feel that Stephen Poliakoff's new play has strayed so far from the question of children's welfare that the return to it rings a trifle hollow. Indeed, the worst bits of this always interesting work are Harriet Walter's straight- to-audience impersonations of her patients that are gratingly unconvincing, and sound more like perky auditions for EastEnders or Oliver! than the discourse of genuinely disturbed children.

In the author's own production, Sweet Panic once again demonstrates Poliakoff's sharp eye for the less acknowledged signs of the times, but the play would have everything to gain from being rewritten for television - and not just because the screen version could make more of the potentially haunting final scene between the two women in the deserted tunnels under Marble Arch. What the piece needs is a less abrupt start: to show you the two women separately, each under her own pressures and strains, then gradually converging in this combustible collision. With the overlapping textures of TV, the point that these antagonists are from similar origins, despite having trodden markedly divergent paths, could be made with more force.

Clare has a secretary (a fine Kate Isitt) who is cryptically self-contained to the point of sabotage; a handsome former patient (Rupert Penry-Jones) who is not the glittering success he first makes out; and a boring traffic- analyst boyfriend (Mark Tandy) who stops mouthing pieties like "it's the work that counts" the minute a German rival pips him to the post with a book on conductorless buses. None of these figures has much life beyond their thematic function. As acted here, they contribute to an atmosphere of faint contrivance that makes you feel that this suggestive, intelligent and witty play knew its conclusions before it had embarked on the dramatic experiment.

n To 16 March. Booking: 0171-722 9301