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Avalanche: A Love Story at the Barbican

2 May 2019 | Georgie Anderson

What does medical science mean to humanity? Easing life? Extending life?

From the latter half of the 20th century, it has also meant creating life against the odds dealt out to us by Mother Nature. We now have the ability to play God with that spark of life that was previously relinquished to fate, religion and nature. But this control isn’t all-encompassing, so we regularly find ourselves awkwardly positioned between having command of, and being commanded by our bodies. We hope that medicine will triumph, but we are plagued with the possibility of failure. 
 
This is the desperate, foggy place that the Woman (Maxine Peake) resides in throughout Julia Leigh’s new play Avalanche: A Love Story. The one-woman show, which premiered at the Barbican as part of Fertility Fest, traces the Woman’s lonely pursuit of pregnancy through IVF, unearthing the experience of loving and losing someone who has never existed. Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, the subject matter of the play is weighty, but it is tenderly dotted with a light-hearted humour that makes the Woman’s pain seem all the more human.
 
Maxine Peake in Avalanche: A Love Story at the Barbican © The Other Richard
' [The] lonely pursuit of pregnancy through IVF' © The Other Richard

Maxine Peake delivers the hour and a half long dialogue with expert realism. Her conversational tone makes the character feel utterly real: the effect is that of the warm comfort of talking with a close friend, making her heartbreak all the more gutting.
 
Marg Horwell’s largely minimalistic set situates Peake in a clinical box-like room. The room, which mimics a sterile doctor’s office, embodies a desire for absolute control. It is contained and clean, but still acts as a canvas for the messy, irrepressible aspects of life: Peake leans exhaustedly against the back wall, a sombre blue light illuminates the bare walls. At intervals, children skip in and out, haunting and taunting the Woman.
 
Maxine Peake in Avalanche: A Love Story at the Barbican © The Other Richard
'Children skip in and out, haunting and taunting the Woman' © The Other Richard

At some point the room begins to rise with laborious slowness, a movement so subtle that it is only noticeable when an ominous blackness seeps from the growing gap between the floor and the three walls of the room. As this happens, a feeling of desperation and of losing a battle against time grows, as the Woman endures round after round of IVF in the hope that this next one might work. The feeling of drowning is evoked as the surface slips further and further out of reach.
 
Simultaneous with the rising of the set, a consistent low rumbling taints the background noise. It is a dim irritation that slips in and out of our consciousness, ever present, but most noticeable when Peake falls silent. Together, the set and soundscape vocalises what cannot be vocalised through words: a feeling of impending doom that persists in the background, even when it is ignored. There is no doubt that Avalanche: A Love Story will be explicitly relatable to many, but it also dwells on a more universal scramble to control our own narratives.
 
However, while her story is a lonely one, there is something powerful to be felt by the Woman confiding to us. The sharing of this story leads to an aloneness that is shared rather than alienated. Avalanche: A Love Story does exactly what Fertility Fest intends to do: it reminds those who have suffered the trials of fertility treatments that they are not alone. This is sustenance for the growing conversations on infertility, which are changing the landscape of fertility treatment for good.

Avalanche: A Love Story is at the Barbican until 12 May
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