First seen at Hampstead Theatre in 1996, Stephen Poliakoff's Sweet Panic now limps belatedly back into town some seven years later, its story of modern alienation and dislocation reflected in a production that itself seems out-of-place and out of its depth in a far bigger West End theatre.
What might have been a play equal parts edgy contemporary psychological drama and sharp social documentary in the intimate confines of Hampstead now struggles to find an urgency and larger resonance on a wider stage. Poliakoff has written a dense, intense canvas of modern life, as refracted through the concerns of parents for their children of the very different and ever-changing world they have to face from the one that they nostalgically remember.
But instead of the big picture Poliakoff is trying to paint about a "world spinning away from us", as the play's principal nostalgist has it, you paradoxically worry instead about the more intimate and downright disturbing story of how just how nutty that character really is as she tirelessly pursues a vendetta against the child psychologist who she feels has let her down.
Caroline Trevel (Jane Horrocks), a highly anxious mother whose son George has been a patient of Clare Attwood (Victoria Hamilton), turns into an avenging harridan after George absconds one bank holiday weekend. A police search has eventually found him two days later, but Clare has been impossible to track down in the midst of the crisis. Now, in Mrs Trevel's own words, she's become "the mother from hell" who stalks Clare, desperate to hold someone to account for the rage and helplessness she feels in the midst of a world that has changed out of all recognition to the one she grew up in.
As if this isn't enough to deal with, Poliakoff also introduces other examples of Clare's failures: Leo, an unruly boy whose father Mr Boulton (Philip Bird) comes calling to accuse her of laughing at him in her sessions with his son; Jess, a 13-year-old girl who creates realistic models of London landmarks (particularly those in South Kensington), and keeps making distressed phone calls to her; and Richard (Rupert Evans), a former client who is now grown up but returns with an axe still to grind. Meanwhile, Clare's personal life is also imploding, with her partner Martin (John Gordon-Sinclair) facing a professional crisis of his own.
It all becomes massively overloaded, and Poliakoff's own production fails to reconcile its competing narrative strands into a cohesive whole. Victoria Hamilton valiantly attempts to accommodate the shifting lurches in her character's alternate displays of confidence and self-doubt, but Jane Horrocks has a tougher job of making Mrs Trevel anything but grating.
Matters aren't helped either by Tom Piper's design that brings London to less than evocative life with a few spartan screens and wooden columns.
- Mark Shenton