A Child of Science review – heartbreak and hard work behind birth of IVF

<span>Sensitive … Tom Felton, Jamie Glover and Meg Bellamy in A Child of Science.</span><span>Photograph: Helen Murray</span>
Sensitive … Tom Felton, Jamie Glover and Meg Bellamy in A Child of Science.Photograph: Helen Murray

Towards the end of Gareth Farr’s A Child of Science, which explores the development of IVF, there is a remarkable scene of profound pathos and personal devastation. Huddersfield housewife Margaret (superlatively performed by Adelle Leonce), who has taken part in the trials and is otherwise known as Patient 38, is given unwelcome news. But it is received with such heroic grace that many in the audience were moved to tears. This is a play that sensitively deals with what is clearly an emotive and important subject for many.

It is therefore unfortunate that so much else feels relatively rote in this fictionalised account of the events that led to the birth of the first baby through in vitro fertilisation in 1978. The narrative is driven by the scenes between Robert Edwards, Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy (respectively Tom Felton, a commanding Jamie Glover and Meg Bellamy), who successfully pioneered the technique. Under Matthew Dunster’s direction, it zips along at a brisk, televisual pace. Anna Fleischle’s dynamic stage design of sliding panels and doors adds to this fluidity, deftly sustained by an ensemble who shift between characters as quickly as one scene transitions into the next.

At times, it does often feel like a succession of scenes in which men with clipped accents squint through microscopes and argue with other men on committees. One can appreciate the significance of the story, but compressing years of research into expository and non-specialist details renders it surprisingly lifeless. For all its dealing with the fundamental and miraculous bloody stuff of life, the science here is less dramatically compelling than the narrative threads of secondary figures.

These predominantly female characters are not entirely absent, but appear as ciphers for everything else. Questions of class, which inevitably arise in cases where medical research is maintained by the bodies of working-class women, are mostly elided. Wives disappear to raise children while their husbands change the world, and broad northern accents provide comedy relief, but those characters are only belatedly permitted to articulate the intense yearnings of more complex drama.

At Bristol Old Vic until 6 July