Ordinary Extraordinary

A Child of Science takes us on an emotional journey through 20 years of scientific tenacity, personal resillience, loss and hope – in pursuit of life.

By: Clare Howdle,   2 minutes

It’s Tuesday night. This time a week ago I was in tears. My friend next to me was in tears. The people in front of me, behind. All of us, trying our best not to actually ball our eyes out.

Why? A moving exchange between two women. About the sacrifices we make in the name of what we believe in and the lengths we will go to for even the slightest chance of something we’re desperate to have.

On stage at Bristol Old Vic, nurse, embryologist and pioneer of fertility treatment Jean Purdy is speaking to a patient-volunteer in the early in vitro fertilisation (IVF) trials. The words they say are only part of the story. On their shoulders these characters – and the actors that faultlessly portray them – carry the weight of millions of stories of hope, resilience, heartbreak, loss and ultimately, birth.

Gareth Farr’s A Child of Science, brought to life by the luminous Impossible Producing,  explores the complex science and challenging questions that marked the advent of IVF, charting the incredible events that led to one of the most remarkable medical breakthroughs of our time.

Decades of scientific resolve and personal sacrifice are captured and told with pace, in an intelligent, eye-opening and – at times – highly emotive production. With superlative set design from Anna Fleischle, tight, dynamic direction from Matthew Dunster, and a hardworking cast (including Meg Bellamy, Tom Felton, Jamie Glover), what must have in truth been a painfully slow, incremental science, is given a fizzing energy, through sharp dialogue, fleeting vignettes and sometimes even just the briefest of glances across retreating bus stops and behind sliding doors.

But the real power of this story lies with the hundreds of couples who bravely volunteered for and endured endless IVF trials, returning again and again through trauma, loss and blind hope that they might be the lucky ones. Deftly performed with candour and tenderness, Adelle Leonce is scene-stealing as the vivacious Margaret Isherwood, or ‘Patient 38’. Over the course of the play her story intersects with and elevates the sometimes densely scientific, sometimes poignantly existential debate as she courts, marries, and persists, doggedly, heartbreakingly, with round after round of the experimental treatment; every failed attempt providing essential data to enable IVF’s eventual success.

The history of this life-changing procedure is a truly extraordinary story. But as Tom Felton’s resolute Bob Edwards says when his team witnesses the first successful blastocyst in vitro, “until extraordinary is ordinary – very, very ordinary – we won’t be able to claim this a success.”* Thankfully, for the 12 million people around the world who have been supported to start families through IVF over the last forty years, ordinary wasn’t too far away.

*I may have taken a liberty or two with this line, my memory is somewhat waterlogged, to say the least…

 A Child of Science is at Bristol Old Vic until 6 July. Tickets are available from

All photos: Helen Murray

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