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Maxine Peake on her latest theatre role and why it’s a story that needs to be told

Life mirroring art: Maxine can relate to her character going through IVF. Below: In rehearsal for Avalanche: A Love Story

IT’S a story that needs to be told,’ says actor Maxine Peake of her latest play Avalanche: A Love Story — an adaptation of Julia Leigh’s memoir about going through IVF. ‘There’s a lot in the media about infertility, but it’s usually about the success stories — and there are a lot of women out there who IVF hasn’t been successful for,’ she explains. ‘There’s a lack of understanding from people who haven’t been through it about what it entails. It’s also a big money making machine for a lot of private clinics. Women put their hope into it.’

She speaks from experience. After suffering miscarriages she embarked on IVF. ‘I did two rounds on the NHS. I was lucky, but it’s not the same in all areas of the country so it’s not an option for a lot of women,’ she says. Maxine’s experiences, of course, aren’t the same as Julia’s, or the character she portrays. ‘Julia ended up doing it on her own. I had a very strong relationship. And I was never desperate for a child. It’s a difficult thing to say because people then say ‘‘So why did you go through IVF?’’ But I came quite quickly to the realisation it wasn’t going to work out and it was something I had to put to rest — but a lot of women can’t do that. I’ve spoken to women who have had 12 rounds… when do you stop? It’s down to the individual, but it can be a desperate situation.’

Maxine, 44, points out that audiences don’t need to have experienced IVF to appreciate the play, and that wider themes involve learning to love in general. ‘But I hope people who have been through IVF and haven’t had a successful experience can watch it and feel they aren’t alone.’ Maxine found TV success in sitcom Dinnerladies before Shameless and fronting the legal drama, Silk. On stage she’s played Hamlet, had an acclaimed run in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days last year and can be seen as Velvet Underground singer Nico as part of the Manchester International Festival in July. ‘Nico fascinates me — she spent quite a bit of time in Manchester,’ says Maxine, who lives in Salford. ‘But she only stayed because the heroin was cheap. In the 1950s she was in Ibiza hanging out with jazz musicians like Chet Baker, she was cool. Then there was Andy Warhol and The Factory in the 1960s and working with Fellini. I’ve spoken to so many people who say, “yeah, you’d see her in her anorak in a pub in Prestwich having a pint and playing pool. You think, “wow, what happened?”’

Maxine, who has never sung on stage before, is having singing lessons. Other challenges she’s risen to include writing plays and radio dramas, such as Queens Of The Coal Age about female protesters in the 1980s miners’ strike.

Are female protagonists starting to receive better representation on stage and screen? ‘It’s quite in vogue now,’ says Maxine. ‘We go through fads — there might be more female-led projects but it’s still not letting women tell their own stories. It might have a female lead but it might not mean it’s been written by a woman or directed by a woman. It’s improving slowly — but why has it taken us until 2019 to crack that one?’

Avalanche: A Love Story opens at the Barbican tomorrow and runs until May 12, barbican.org.uk