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Avalanche: A Love Story at the Barbican Theatre | Review

Avalanche: A Love Story Maxine Peake, photo credit: ©The Other Richard
Avalanche: A Love Story Maxine Peake, photo credit: ©The Other Richard

Maxine Peake’s one-woman show is something of a plodding, steady snow drift, rather than an avalanche.

She tells the story of Julia Leigh’s memoir (the play is adapted by Anna Louise-Starks from a book of the same name) tracking the turbulent and traumatic experience of trying for pregnancy at the latter end of fertility. She begins by hooking up with a partner from years ago. He wants children, and suddenly, so does she. It’s not clear what provokes her decision, and though the play develops such that the audience are sympathetic to her struggles, it’s never quite clear what’s motivating her.

Leigh flags the idea that women don’t have to be mothers, and that not being a mother doesn’t mean failure, but she simultaneously suggests the social expectation around maternity. The play could be read as a struggle to balance social conformity and individual desires. There’s the well-worn ‘career-or-child’ balance, but then also the mother-daughter relationship, and the fickle mind of a (male) lover with no responsibilities. Peake’s character is a successful film-maker, and/but she wants to be a mother, and a daughter, and a lover, and, well… a woman.

The plot takes the fairly simple path of retelling her multiple, exhausting, extremely costly battle for fertilisation. Different men, donors, doctors and friends swing in and out of the narrative. She changes doctor, changes treatment, lets her career slip. Things start to fall apart. Running underneath the whole narrative was a suggestion that we might suddenly turn Greek, and Peake might turn into Medea. She plays with children, takes them swimming and stands on cliff edges. This tension is never resolved and permeates the maternity-mental health narrative.

In a way, it’s quite refreshing to have such a simple play, told simply, on a mostly empty stage; designed by Stefan Gregory, bare but for a table and a back wall which rises above Peake as her chances slip away from her. The themes have a strong semblance of universality, though the mounting costs of treatment suggest otherwise. Peake’s character is established as financially able, but the costs for women who are not is never addressed. Though fertility is something which crosses the career path of any woman, this nagging neglect makes the universality of the narrative questionable.

Of course, a play doesn’t have to ring true for everyone – as a 21-year-old, unmarried male, I certainly gained knowledge from Leigh’s story. But given the lack of explicit political undertow (aside from perhaps a reflection of the piffling commitment of men who have no concerns or responsibilities) and the non-climactic narrative structure, Avalanche begs the question of what makes it a play, rather than a reading of the book. Louise-Stark’s adaptation doesn’t add dramatic staging, nor a more politically engaged message. Peake’s performance is faultless, but we’re left to wonder whether she was inhabiting a new, theatrical character, or retelling Leigh’s story in a different setting.

Indeed, Avalanche might be hailed as a deconstruction of narrative structures and orthodoxies of storytelling. Perhaps the Barbican ‘Fertility’ season is an introduction of new stories and new storytellers. Stories don’t have to be universal, nor politically directed. The play ends with an attempt to join us all together in Leigh’s shared experience, possibly suggesting an invitation for audience members to reply with their stories. Avalanche doesn’t explicitly propose deconstructionism in its form, delivery or content, but one could certainly read its steady, careful style as such. What would such a new, (‘female’?) form of communication look like? Maybe
Avalanche is just such a thing.

3 Star Review

Review by Thomas Froy

When a woman rekindles an early love in her late 30s her whole life changes. Deeply in love and full of shared commitment, she and her new husband want a child together and they make an appointment at an IVF clinic. So begins her courageous journey of medical processes and personal rituals. Her raw emotions oscillate between high hopes and deep doubt.

Avalanche: A Love Story lays bare the stark truth of one woman’s experience of the seductive promises made by the multi-billion-dollar IVF industry to those in the grip of a “snow blind” yearning and desire to make a baby. Inspired by Julia Leigh’s true story, it is an exploration of who we are and how we love.

Avalanche: A Love Story plays in the Barbican Theatre from Saturday 27 April–Sunday 12 May 2019, and tours to the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney, from Thursday 29 August–Saturday 14 September 2019.
https://www.barbican.org.uk

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