‘Avalanche’ begins with a woman recounting a visit to a stage psychic. When asked who she lost, she replies ‘I lost my mother.’ But this is not a drama about grieving for a parent; this is a look at the grief a woman feels for what might have been, for the children she can’t have and the mother she will never be.
A one-woman show, starring Maxine Peake, ‘Avalanche’ is an adaptation of Australian writer and filmmaker Julia Leigh’s 2016 memoir. A gruelling account of years, and tens of thousands of dollars, lost to IVF, it is part of the Barbican’s Fertility Fest – the world’s first arts festival on the subject, apparently.
It starts with a wry tone: trotting briskly (and perhaps a little too straightforwardly chronologically) through the woman’s late-thirties reconnection with a university boyfriend, their second romance and attempts to conceive. But things get increasingly fraught as their relationship founders as they fail to conceive. By the time the woman is going, alone, through round after round of IVF, the panic level rises and ‘Avalanche’ becomes tensely gripping.
Anne-Louise Sarks’s production doesn’t fully convince that theatre is the best medium for this story: there are some ominous rumbling sound effects and some business with the stark white walls, but it’s predictable rather than shattering. Occasionally two small children ghost the stage, but mostly it is just Peake talking to us; the fact that this is a co-production with not only the Sydney Theatre Company but also Amazon’s audiobook arm Audible makes a lot of sense.
Naturally the book has been edited, but the material feels a wee bit lopsided. There’s amusing invective about Leigh’s rotten-sounding husband and some painstakingly clear accounts of the medical procedures involved. But there isn’t much on the actual yearning for a child – the why behind the how. I wanted to hear more about what she thinks she’ll get out of this harrowing process, to gain greater insight into the all-consuming desire to be a mother.
Still, an hour-and-a-half in Peake’s company is never going to be time wasted, and she’s predictably brilliant. Pacing back and forth or standing hands in pockets, she’s about as natural as you could be on the Barbican’s vast stage. Her delivery is paper dry, often amusingly knowing, but as desperation begins to drag the woman down, she subtly takes us with her – a quaver in the voice, a tremble of the lip, emotion escaping as the walls she puts up begin to crumble.
The huge physical and mental toll IVF treatment may take is laid bare, as is the financial cost. As the woman recounts the faux-naive, sing-song advice of doctors – advice that, funnily enough, always ends up at ‘pay more money’ – you are left feeling deeply cynical about this global business that preys on hope.