Avalanche at the Barbican is a rare opportunity to see the marvellous Maxine Peake up close and extremely personal in a solo stage performance. It’s about conception, and the endless, backbreaking, heartbreaking road travelled by the solo character on her quest to defeat nature’s suggestion she can’t have children.
It starts lightly with an amusing rekindled romance with a handsome university mate, but when they realise they are not ultimately compatible, the character known only as ‘Woman’ sets off down a longer route to having children. That of IVF, harvested and stored eggs, sperm taken directly from the testes of a vasectomised male and so many clinical explanations that you come out wondering why you don’t regularly incorporate ‘blastocyst’ in your everyday conversations.
As we move in to the repeated sequences of implantation and fertilisation, with so many concomitant failures, it’s wonderful to see how Peake deals with hope, pain, loss, regret, impatience and a persistent affection for her potential ‘childing’. Peake brings to life the true story of the Australian screen writer Julia Leigh who balanced studying for a PhD, writing and directing for film and television with her complex struggle to carry a child to term.
The acting is significantly better than the material which in the wrong hands could be interpreted as Leigh’s middle class angst. But the piece does not shrink from suggesting that there’s over-optimism in the IVF industry, and that the number of successful pregnancies is much smaller than you might think.
Ultimately, like the minimal set, Woman’s life falls apart, and Peake’s superlative acting brings the story to a rueful conclusion.
However, not everyone will connect with her performance. We overhead a man on his way out to the bar wonder, “why didn’t she just get a dog?”
Avalanche: A Love Story, Barbican Theatre, Silk Street EC2Y 8DS. Until May 12.
Last Updated 07 May 2019