January 10, 2004: Poliakoff, Sweet Panic

Duke of York’s Theatre. Matinee. Directed by Stephen Poliakoff

I keep ending up being disappointed in Stephen Poliakoff. This play is extremely well acted, especially by the two female leads, Victoria Hamilton (Clare) and Jane Horrocks (Mrs Trevel). Billed as a comedy-mystery, it is certainly a hybrid, but the experiment proves to be ultimately less than fully successful. This is partly because Poliakoff strains credulity at various points. The central character, Clare, is a child psychologist who comes, we later learn, from an unhappy childhood. She is constantly allowing her boundaries to become permeable, with the result that she finds herself compromised or even trapped and physically threatened. And so, at the end, she finds herself alone with the highly neurotic mother of one of her child patients in a disused tunnel far below Marble Arch, into which they somehow have wandered while trying to rescue Clare’s car, which she has parked in the underground Marble Arch parking lot. To his credit, Poliakoff makes the character of Clare a very interesting one, prompted perhaps by her empathetic nature, and/or by demons she only vaguely understands, to allow these various breaches of professional decorum. The result is she lets her partner, an academic with a specialty in public transportation (is there some vague joke in this?), a man who seems wholly unsuited for Clare (and Poliakoff seems not to know this), down by missing his big paper at a conference; keeps prying into the private life of her receptionist and finally quarrels with her, blaming her for the missed paper; and permitting Mrs Trevel, the seriously neur­otic parent, to invade her life unconscionably. What are we supposed to think about this? Should we find some pity in our hearts for this much put-upon and in some ways very attractive children’s therapist?

Or should we step back and take a larger view of it all, as the pieces about public transport, the changing climate of safety for children in a threatening and hostile world, and Poliakoff’s experience a dozen years ago in discovering the subterranean spaces below London when he was making a film on another subject all imply that we should? Finally the question hangs, looking for a clearer answer to the question, Where is the center of this play? The mysteriousness that hangs over some scenes, augmented by the heart-beat-raising sense of vague threat that admittedly is present and gives the scenes a certain engaging dramatic force, ends up feeling gratuitous.

The best scene in the play occurs in the closing of Act I, when Mrs Trevel becomes so beside herself, and her anxiety over the wel­­fare of her child and her conviction that Clare embodies all the threats pres­ented by current life so great, that she, Mrs Trevel, runs at Clare and assaults her, swinging her arms and beating her as Clare tries desperately but resourcefully to fend her off, and at last does so. It feels more like a welcome clarification than a crisis. But in Act II Mrs Trevel reverts to her monomaniacal pursuit of the hapless Clare, having left the glimmer of self-knowledge gained at the end of Act I well behind. And they end up, as mentioned, in a subterranean dead-end — where Mrs Trevel proposes to get them through their imprisonment over a long bank holiday by bringing a miscellaneous picnic of sorts out of her startlingly capacious handbag. Mean­while, they can listen to the tapes of unhappy children that Clare, violating still another professional rule, has brought along with her.

The more you try to make real sense out of this, the more you are inclined to throw up your hands and just be grateful for some very fine acting, more than usually articulate verbally, even by generally high London theatre standards, and call it an afternoon.

Oh, yes, the title, Sweet Panic. Cassandra Jardine’s program piece, “Play­ground of the Mind,” uses the phrase to describe the anxiety-ridden situation that parents of young children find themselves in today, every bit as much as they did a decade or more ago, when things were under far less control than they are now. And Mrs Trevel, in one of her scenes with Clare, uses the phrase and says, mysteriously, “Panic is sweet. Don’t you know that?” Clare doesn’t know that, and it’s not clear whether that is just a current idiom meaning­ful to Britons but unintelligible to Americans — “sweet” meaning something vaguely like “precious in an odd sort of way” — or what. I remain unenlightened about this.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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