STUFFED, a play based on IVF experience opens at the Jack Studio Theatre

A new play that shines a light on the world of IVF has opened at a UK London Theatre

STUFFED is a comedy written by Lucy Joy Russell and Holly McFarlane, which aims to demystify some of the challenges faced with infertility, and offer a new perspective on an issue that is only growing.

There is a growing fertility crisis in the UK. One in seven heterosexual couples, or 3.5 million people will have difficulty conceiving.  Since the 1970s male sperm counts are down nearly 60 per cent across the western world and 20 per cent of women born in the same decade reached 45 without having children.

 It’s not clear exactly what is to blame. About 20 to 30 per cent of infertility cases are due to male factors, 20 to 35 per cent are due to female, and 25 to 40 per cent are due to combined problems in both parts. Up to 20 per cent of cases remain ‘unexplained’.

But to try and cope, couples are increasingly looking for professional help to conceive and today one in 50 children born in the UK are the result of IVF, with many more receiving other fertility treatments.

Yet discussion on the topic, while no longer taboo, is fraught with anxiety and superstition. People on both sides still don’t know how to talk about it openly. Those with children to those without, doctors to patients, and people on the journey to each other.

IVFbabble spoke to co-writer Lucy Joy Russell about the play and the reaction so far.

Tell us about your fertility journey?

My partner and I have been on the journey to try and have children for about ten years. Unfortunately though, our infertility is still officially ‘unexplained’. We went through all the tests – hycosy, hormones, ovarian reserve, full blood work-up and vitamin levels for us both, sperm samples etc etc – and everything looks fine. We have tried three different clinics; IUI 3 times, IVF 4 times and, while we’ve never had enough top graded embryos to freeze any, we have twice transferred top graded blastocysts (and once a mid-grade blastocyst and once a 4-day embryo) with no success. I have been found to have slightly high natural killer cells and my husband and I have what amounts to a 100 per cent HLA DQ alpha match, which may be a possible explanation and could be the basis for a long discussion in itself.

We love that you have made the play a comedy, as there is little to smile about when you are going through it. Was that the reason for making it comical?

There were so many funny moments during our IVF journey.  A lot of them stemmed from the IVF process itself which really couldn’t be further away from sexy or intimate if it tried. Some of the physical positions we found ourselves in were inelegant, to say the least.  We also came across a stream of professionals each with different quirks and viewpoints, like the chirpy embryologist who appeared like a jack in the box from hatch doors directly in front of my crotch, the consultant who stormed out on us – wearing a hairnet – and the nurse who was doing a straw poll to find out if all woman went to the toilet straight after sex.

We also found ourselves having ridiculous conversations with family, friends or doctors as we all tried to strike the right tone. Talking in seemingly endless circles in our desperate search for answers. Sometimes though the situation was funny just because what we all needed, more than anything, was to laugh.

What fertility research (if needed) went into the play?

I’d already gathered most of the research through the experience itself.  Because our own fertility was unexplained, we spent a long time looking for reasons, which meant we were willing to try a lot of different methods and tests to try and improve our chances. From our early days with the NHS through to some more experimental treatments, which we touch on in the play.  People going through this themselves will no doubt recognise the desire to do everything you can. The longer it goes on, the more outlandish ideas start to seem perfectly reasonable.

We’ve also been lucky to have strong support of the Fertility Network who have really helped the whole team present the IVF specific sections in a way that gets across the facts whilst also making them accessible.  Anya Sizer spent a morning with the cast at rehearsals and kindly shared her own personal story of both successful and unsuccessful IVF.  This really helped flesh out the process for the cast and also enabled them to ask questions they had not been so comfortable asking me.

What has been the reaction so far?

The reaction so far has been humbling. We definitely want people to laugh, but there are some very emotional moments too. We’ve been blown away by the comments from people afterwards about how they have had a great time but are also seeing things from a new perspective. That’s exactly what we were hoping for.

As the playwrights, what do you hope to achieve from the play? 

The world is very much designed around people having children, raising them and in turn being looked after by them in their old age. As we know, many struggle to have children and turn to assisted methods of conception. Yet, for a variety of reasons, we often don’t share our experiences with family and friends. They likely know nothing of the journey itself and can be unsure how to ask. We hope that by showing that there is a funny side, as well as a challenging one, we can introduce people to the world of IVF and open up the conversation more broadly. Not just of IVF itself, but also of positive futures without children.

Will you tour the show once its run has finished at the Jack Studio?

We are very grateful to the Jack Studio in Brockley and Kate Bannister who believed passionately in what we were trying to do and helped us bring it to life on stage. Of course we’d love to share our story as broadly as possible, either in a bigger venue here in London or by getting on the road.

For more information on the play visit here 

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