Sweet Panic at the Drama Barn

The weekend of week six, Francesca Seeley brought Stephan Poliakoff’s Sweet Panic to the Drama Barn. The play is a dark piece which follows the relationship between child therapist Clare Atwood (Panda Cox) and the neurotic, obsessive mother of one of her patients, Mrs. Trevel (Becky Baxter). When Clare goes away for a bank holiday weekend with her metro-bus expert boyfriend, Martin (Nick Payne), she refuses to give Mrs. Trevel her mobile number and thus can’t be contacted when George, Mrs. Trevel’s son, goes missing. Mrs. Trevel begins stalking Clare, demanding George’s files; at the same time, a former patient, Richard (Alexander Hargreaves), returns in a less than stable state, another child, Jess, terminates her sessions and a parent, Mr. Boulton (Stevie Ratcliff), is determined to demonstrate to Clare the importance of his work perfecting the meal-in-a-cup. Clare’s regimented and controlled world begins to crumble against a haunting London backdrop and Mrs. Trevel reveals her complexity as she imparts to Clare the wisdom “panic is good”.

The play is slightly disconcerting, like an Escher drawing in that you can’t quite identify what it is that gives it such a strange and menacing tone. It has a disturbingly spooky effect; you are constantly waiting for something really terrible to happen, for some dark secret to be revealed and for cardboard London to come crashing down around Clare’s ears. As it is, there are some major potential crises, such as Richard’s frightening attack in the park, but by the end of the play you realise that it is Clare’s fear of the collapse of her rigorously structured world that puts her and the audience so on edge. When she finally relinquishes her strangle hold on life, the ominous shadow ceases to follow her. An interesting concept, the play lacks believability; why would a woman with such control over her life, who apparently holds her work so close to her heart (if anything too close), risk everything by not reporting Mrs. Trevel to the police straight away? Why would such a by-the-book professional go off for a picnic in a deserted park with an ex-patient whom (it is later revealed) she suspects of being less sane and successful than he makes out.

These issues may render the play somewhat moot as Clare’s dilemmas seem far too obviously solvable and her reactions don’t always fit with her characterisation. However, I was impressed by what the cast and crew did with a difficult script, at times excellent in its attention to detail and the truth of its dialogue, but patchy as a whole. The most striking feature was its all round high quality acting; the cast was a York University all-star offering, with Panda Cox following up her work in Far Away with another memorable and natural performance as Clare Atwood. She was matched by Becky Baxter’s scarily uptight Mrs. Trevel and an equally believably Alex Hargreaves as Richard, although he did falter a little in the more highly charged, emotional scene in the park.

The use of 13-year-old patient Jess’ cardboard models of London to set the different scenes around the city was an effective technique, demonstrating how Clare is defined by her young patients; she, as Jess earlier demands, is seeing London through Jess’ eyes. Throughout the play, Clare acts as the children’s mouthpiece, taking on their voices, but at the same time they are her bridge to the world. She even keeps a recording of herself as a child, as if the only way she can engage with herself is to go back to her childhood state of mind.

The photographic backdrops used worked well in the park scenes when large prints of leaves indicated an outdoor setting, but the black and white art prints in Clare’s office, though beautiful, were a little self-indulgent. Would a child therapist not be more likely to decorate her walls with something more suited to her clientele? The prints served only to further confuse our image of Clare although they were an ingenious way of indicating scene changes.

A play that, ultimately, did not quite succeed in examining the questions it raised, this was nonetheless an impressively performed and thought provoking production which showcased the high calibre of our student actors.

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