On the anniversary of Hollywood legend Ava Gardner’s death, she lived again in the form of Elizabeth McGovern, whose play AVA: The Secret Conversations opened at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios last night. It’s based on the book written by Gardner in conjunction with Peter Evans, and co-stars Anatol Yusef as Evans (and a range of other characters) – Gaby Dellal directs.
The play follows Evans’ experiences in writing the book, from a surprise phone call from Gardner inviting him to work with her, to their increasingly intimate conversations drilling further & further into her life story. Despite Ava’s insistence that it’s boring, they start with her childhood in a North Carolina dustbowl, then steadily work their way onto her infamous relationships; she was married to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw & Frank Sinatra, but was also involved with businessman Howard Hughes on & off for 20 years. She’s keen to move away from the personal details of her life and instead discuss her body of work, but Peter is under pressure from his agent to find out more about a certain part of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ anatomy. As the pair spend more time together, the lines between past and present start to become blurred…
There’s so much potential in a life as glamorous and tumultuous as Ava Gardner’s, but it doesn’t quite come to fruition in this slightly bits & pieces play. It takes a little while to get going, with short scenes and conversations not really leading anywhere – and considering the play repeatedly tries to make the point that stars need their privacy (a hot topic to this day), it’s a bit of a shame that it only really comes alive when her husbands make an appearance. As someone with no real knowledge of her filmography, it might’ve been nice to hear a little more about some of her work, though I suppose that’s not what the play is meant to be about. For a while I did wonder why there was quite so much swearing, but thankfully it is addressed in the script; it possibly is still a little too liberal with the expletives, however, as they started to get in the way of anything really being said.
Some of the transitions are a little clunky and slow, though I do like the idea of ‘reframing’ the scene as Ava slips back into her memories – it’s reminiscent (presumably intentionally) of a cinema screen adjusting as it moves from trailers to the feature itself. 59 Productions’ set and video designs are impressive; the occasional projection of film and video clips is a nice touch, especially for those of us who need a bit of context and background on what these people were like in real life.
Elizabeth McGovern is excellent as Ava, and is particularly adept at portraying the different stages in her life; from giddy ingénue, to rising starlet, to jaded alcoholic. She moves effortlessly between the ages, as Ava drifts in and out of her rêverie. Anatol Yusef is at his best when taking on the roles of Rooney, Shaw & Sinatra – especially the childlike exuberance of the former. Unfortunately, for me many of the pair’s interactions seem slightly awkward, and they feel rather lacking in chemistry. A personal revelation from Peter to his agent halfway through the play comes as a bit of a surprise, in that regard.
I’m afraid it’s a bit of a disappointment on the whole, though a running time of 90 minutes with no interval has to be an upside. Many of the problems boil down to the script needing refinement, with perhaps more focused direction – this would help iron out some of the bumps, and give Ava the compelling story she deserves.
My verdict? Plenty of potential, but ultimately let down in the writing & directing departments – Elizabeth McGovern is excellent as Ava through the ages, however.
AVA: The Secret Conversations runs at Riverside Studios until 16 April 2022. Tickets are available online.