Review: Avalanche: A Love Story, Roslyn Packer Theatre (NSW)

Virginia Balfour

STC’s production presents a powerful journey through infertility.
Review: Avalanche: A Love Story, Roslyn Packer Theatre (NSW)

Maxine Peake in Sydney Theatre Company and the Barbican London’s production of Avalanche: A Love Story. Image: The Other Richard.

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Avalanche: A Love Story begins with the ominous rumble of a distant avalanche, like an underground train running under the theatre. The lights rise on a sterile white set dressed with a single table and chair, and a woman standing centre stage. The woman tells us a funny story about going to see a psychic medium show where the audience is asked if anyone has lost a loved one. Like everyone else, the woman has, but hers is a hidden loss – the loss of a child who never existed – so she stays quiet. ‘Some losses are hard to name,’ she tells us. 

The avalanche of the play’s title is an image which provides the starting point for the woman’s story: a man on a beach, holding a child, framed by the barrel of a wave which appears like an avalanche about to consume them. It is the point where the woman knows with overwhelming certainty that she wants to have a child. The thundering avalanche that follows is the high hope and deep despair of her IVF journey: the lines in the sand that shift and shift again – how many cycles, whether to use a donor – the agony of making the decision to stop, to extinguish a dream, weighed against the need to know you did everything you could to try to make it happen.

The play is based on the personal story of writer Julia Leigh and her many desperate and failed attempts to have a child, first with a rekindled childhood love, then with sperm donated by her sister’s husband, and finally via a friend. Is it not enough that beautiful children exist, rather than insisting on possessing one of your own, she asks. The irony of the selfishness of wanting something for yourself, and the selflessness of wanting to give everything to another human being, is laid bare here.

UK actress Maxine Peake, in her Sydney debut, describes the solo show as like having a conversation with the audience. It’s something that should have been difficult in the tri-levelled Roslyn Packer Theatre, but Peake manages to tell her story in a way that makes us feel she is talking just to us. She masterfully weaves the highs and lows, alternately making us laugh or shed a tear. The only moments which don’t feel quite right are when theatricalities intervene: a chair is kicked, a table collapses, what the script calls a ‘childling’ plays with a dolls’ house in a shadowy corner of the stage. These devices, while understandable, seem to detract from the intimacy of the piece and seem oddly contrived. The direction works best when it is brave enough to do nothing, to leave Peake exposed on the clinical, soulless stage set with only her story to tell.

The cracking ice of the avalanche and the eventual snowfall represent destruction and devastation – the bleak, barren, cold force of nature in the journey through infertility. It is a journey that is powerfully told in this play, with an eloquent script which balances humour with tragedy. Tragedies do not have happy endings, but this play tries to forge one, hence the love story of the title. The writer says she wants to provide solace to others who have been on the same journey or who are going through it, provide a ‘shared loneliness’, plus build awareness in those who have not. It would be hard to walk away from this production without feeling the great suffering, destruction and distress that childlessness can cause. It provides not so much a happy ending, but a meaningful one. 

4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆

Avalanche: A Love Story
A Barbican Theatre and Fertility Fest production, co-produced by Sydney Theatre Company and Audible
By Julia Leigh
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Designer: Marg Horwell
Lighting designer: Lizzie Powell
Composer and sound designer: Stefan Gregory
Performer: Maxine Peake
29 August-14 September 2019
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay NSW
Tickets from $81

About the author

Virginia Balfour is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has extensive experience working in the UK film and television industry as a producer and director, as well as an NGO film-maker in the USA. She is a published author and journalist and lives with her family in Sydney.