Review, Avalanche: A Love Story, The Barbican

It’s mad to think that the first IVF baby was born just over forty years ago.

Before then, couples who failed to conceive naturally just didn’t have children that were biologically theirs. Now, often for a pretty hefty sum, all sorts of reproductive help is available. Since that first IVF baby was born in 1978, fertility clinics have been helping women to conceive. We’re all aware of the basic process of IVF, the science and the numbers. But, in Avalanche: A Love Story, we take a look at the very real emotional impact that trying to conceive has on a woman.

The Woman in question here is played by Maxine Peake. Alone throughout, she traipses up and down the stage, recalling her lengthy fight to have her own “Childling”. After reconnecting with an old flame aged 39 and marrying him, the pair decide to try for a baby. They are, of course, repeatedly unsuccessful. Approaching the beginning of the IVF process, Paul (the husband) gets cold feet. They divorce, but the Woman continues on in the process with a sperm donor. It is here that we get our first taste of the frustration that is to come, and here that we begin to understand how important time is for an older woman trying to conceive.

Peake is on top form as the Woman. She paces up and down, sits, squats, leans, stands firm. She takes us through every painful detail, every heart-breaking moment. She is ultra-sensitive to Doctors’ tone, gestures, the words they choose to use. Her disappointment is palpable, her frustration devastating. She is superstitious, spiritual and scientific in her approach all at once. She’s desperate. Her performance of Julia Leigh’s writing makes for the most frustrating play I’ve ever seen. “We can’t really say” and “It’s up to you” are answers given to the Woman throughout. She asks for odds, percentages, anything empirical to help her make potentially life-altering decisions, but rarely are they given. With blind hope, she presses on through a series of setbacks that waste crucial time. Her biological clock is unforgiving, ticking away without mercy.

Set by Marg Horwell and lighting by Liz Powell begin unremarkable. The Woman is in a white room, with a table and a chair. Very clinical, very boring. As time passes and her desperation grows, the walls raise, and the room comes up from around her. As the ‘avalanche’ happens (I won’t reveal what the avalanche is a metaphor for as to avoid spoiling the play, although you can probably guess), the room crumbles down around her, disappearing entirely as a snowy mountainscape seems to expand into the darkness of the stage. Twinkling stars and frosty floors create a clear, open space. The “bare face of the mountain” is revealed. The worst is over, and this is what she is left with.

Under Anne-Louise Sarks direction, Leigh’s play is profoundly sad. The Woman’s imagined children join her onstage here and there. A little girl playing with a dolls’ house, and a little boy playing amongst the rubble. They never stay for long, though. The spent time and money, and the physical and emotional side effects that go into fertility treatment often go undiscussed. Avalanche: A Love Story captures the dazzling pain of an unfulfilled desire for a child, and the stifling sense of unfairness that comes with it.

Avalanche: A Love Story is playing the Barbican until 12 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Barbican website.