Avalanche: A Love Story at the Barbican
Maxine Peake received a standing ovation last night, visibly moved by the Barbican’s emotional reaction to Julia Leigh’s Avalanche: A Love Story. Directed by fellow Aussie Anne-Louise Sarks, the playwright’s personal memoir of love and loss hits the stage for the first time, unfolding into a 90-minute, immersive monologue which explores the exasperating process of IVF treatment. The show, part of the Barbican’s 2019 Fertility Fest, is a refreshing, frank and necessary portrayal of an unspoken struggle to have a child.
Left standing amidst a stage of debris and a backdrop of tiny stars, Peake closes a captivating, sustained performance as “Woman” – whose battle to conceive we follow across six years, a failed marriage and nine rounds of treatment. The plot is one-dimensional but accessible: a woman of 38 rekindles a university romance with Paul, rushes into marriage and procreation, and is left reeling when he changes his mind and files for divorce. What ensues has the potential to be an unrelatable, naval-gazing slog – but it certainly isn’t.
Leigh has managed to retell her own story without excessive introspection, with clever and developed depictions of the other, off-stage characters and an eerie inclusion of two imagined, voiceless “childlings”. Sarks’s direction invites us into an initially eye-rollingly bare, clinical stage, which in fact comes to reflect the sly, profiteering, sometimes impersonal IVF clinic. The white walls rise slowly throughout the performance as desperation builds, only to literally fall in and crumble around the Woman when she realises her plight has a futile 2.8% success rate. In conjunction with this, Leigh’s writing on the whole offers, if not hope, then at least counsel to other women traversing similar borders between career, motherhood and sanity.
Peake seems ideally cast as the Woman, fluctuating between optimism, excitement, frustration and intense grief quite effortlessly. It is no easy feat to hold a stage in this way and even the odd stumble feels a naturalistic, viable part of her character’s narrative. The final musings verge on the poetic as the Woman comes to appreciate natural beauty, family and life “after the avalanche” with a renewed tenderness.
In all, Avalanche impressively blurs the lines between art and science, asking who (or what) we are allowed to grieve and highlighting the importance of an open discourse around reproductive health. It is able to resonate not only with women, but with audience members of all genders. A real must-see.
Photo: Richard Davenport
Avalanche: A Love Story is at the Barbican from 27th April until 12th May 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch an interview with Maxine Peake here: