Sweet Panic

Stephen Poliakoff
Duke of York's
(2003)

This might be one of the slowest West End transfers in history. Sweet Panic was originally produced at the Hampstead Theatre in 1996, starring Harriet Walter as Claire and Saskia Reeves as Mrs Trevel. Seven years on, the parts are played by Victoria Hamilton and Jane Horrocks.

Claire is a successful children's psychiatrist. Her life is good in every way, even if her much-loved partner (played by John-Gordon Sinclair) is a bus bore with a rather silly voice.

The play traces her journey from heavenly comfort through a series of symbolic landmarks to a terrifying "underworld" and possible self-understanding and catharsis. Throughout, music with (sometimes corny) appropriate titles signposts the trip.

From its professional zenith, Claire's life is explored almost as if she was in analysis. The primary tool is the truly dreadful Mrs Trevel, Jane Horrocks giving a performance at times reminiscent of her TV "mother" Prunella Scales. This woman teases at the psychiatrist's weak points with vindictive glee.

Victoria Hamilton is excellent in something of a dream role as she transforms herself not only from calm professional to gibbering wreck but also into the parts of three juvenile patients. The pathos that she draws from the part is somewhat reminiscent of her success as Joe Egg's mother.

Unless this really is a nightmare, the journey is overly stylised as Claire seems happy to pursue a professional death-wish for no clear reason. This feeling is not assisted by supporting roles that are not fully realised and an ugly set largely consisting of turquoise screens and pillar-like furniture.

Under Poliakoff's direction, there are, though, two areas of real interest. The case studies of the three children and their depiction on stage say much about Twentieth Century angst. In addition, the two actresses duel with gusto and great concentration on body language. These are the pleasures of Poliakoff's cross between psychological thriller and comedy.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher