Avalanche – The Barbican, London

Writer: Julia Leigh

Director: Anne-Louise Sarks

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Strip away all pretence, performance or personality and leave a human with nothing else but animal nature and you’ll have the driving core of this production. While parenthood is certainly not what everyone wants for themselves, everyone can recognise the pain of someone who feels the desire to create and nurture a life but has not been able to.

Many theatre works will shout about presenting a core human truth, but few can come close to this in terms of subject matter or impact of the finished work on its audience. Part of Fertility Fest, a mixed-media, multi-location, three week exploration of fertility, infertility and IVF, Avalanche: A Love Story details a woman’s quest for success with her fertility treatment. Several rounds of egg production, freezing, implantation, yearning, hormone treatments, disappointment, marriage breakdown and confusion are laid bare by Maxine Peake as the lone cast member. At various points, however, she is joined by a little girl and little boy on stage, walking through her tragedy and playing with toys with a saddening nonchalance as she recounts the pain of losing yet another potentially viable blastocyst.

One woman, a stark stage and an even starker story. Writer Julia Leigh has brought her own personal experience to bear on this, revealing sacred hardships this course of treatment can create. The details make it – the panic at forgetting an injection timing, signing up to weird and unproven treatments just to give the process the best chance, the financial side of paying thousands to doctors who may have a personal stake in the treatments they recommend for purchase. Empathy is a difficult human emotion, it’s a true credit to Peake and the creative team here that throughout the performance there were audible gasps and tense exhalations to accompany each key revelation. Gripped is not the word.

Marg Horwell’s stage transforms as the narrative moves forward – dropping the woman further into a featureless hole as she moves through more unsuccessful cycles. Finishing, transformed into a terrible, beautiful display – it strikes a strange note of confidence after a tough journey. It’s all accompanied by a soundscape from Stefan Gregory – sonorous bass notes throughout which feel likely designed to reflect a womb but are, unfortunately, a distracting rumble at times.

The simplicity in presentation belies a wildly complex story which is masterfully presented through Anne-Louise Sarks’ direction and Peake’s performance. Theatre can be attracted to the sexiness of political themes to comment on and dissect, or philosophise on war, violence and greed. It’s unusual to have a play so powerful about something with an actual human meaning – this one should be truly appreciated.

Runs until 12 May 2019 | Image: The Other Richard

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Stark, gripping and intense

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