As part of the Barbican’s first Fertility Fest, Julia Leigh adapts her 2016 memoir detailing six unsuccessful rounds of IVF treatment. Maxine Peake offers a wild exhaustion as Leigh’s Woman, consumed by the desperation to conceive, but her performance is stifled by a formulaic script that leaves no space to stretch between the words.
The Woman starts her journey to conception in her late 30s, first with a partner, then settling on fertility treatment alone. Trapped in a cycle of desire and despair, she deteriorates both mentally and physically. She is intensely alone and deeply lonely.
Peake is taut throughout. She holds herself together with desperately stubborn hope, delivering the monologue with a grimace. When two children flit on and off, playing with a little doll’s house, the Woman’s resolve wavers. It is too painful for her to look at any child. Yet still, she continues. Goes back to hospital. Tries again.
Where the Woman’s emotion is muted, the set stands in to absorb her pain. Marg Horwell’s design is viscerally overwhelming. Clinical white walls rise, shrinking the Woman’s world and lowering her into a numbing abyss with every failed attempt. Slowly, the set crumbles, as the solidity of youth dissolves and her ever more limited chances of conception slip away. A coating of white; snow, dust, ash. Stefan Gregory’s sound uses silence as a tool, the quiet rolling rumbles and piercing choral notes effective in their minimalism.
But the play is slow, and too much like a lecture in the first half. It’s too clear where an emphasis is placed or a page is turned. The eventual release is beautiful but obvious, and strips its impact from the monotony of anguish. Avalanche allows a necessary space to talk about grief for unborn children, and offers a fresh – if bleak – narrative of IVF as something all-consuming. Perhaps the show will offer some solace to those having been through similar experiences, but Leigh’s story is not adapted deftly enough to draw more than pity.