Archive for January, 2022

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Elizabeth McGovern

Director: Gaby Dellal


The name of Ava Gardner may mean little to many 21st Century film lovers. She won no Oscars and left behind few of the sort of enduring classics that still appear regularly on television and streaming services. Perhaps she would have been remembered differently if she had not turned down an offer to play Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. Yet, in her prime, during the 1940s and 50s, she was a huge name in Hollywood, whose private life led to her featuring as prominently in the gossip column headlines as on the posters for her films.

Elizabeth McGovern’s 90-minute one-act play, looking into Ava’s life, is an adaptation of the book The Secret Conversations, written by journalist Peter Evans and Ava herself. Born in 1922 in North Carolina, she had three high profile marriages: to the juvenile star Mickey Rooney, the jazz musician Artie Shaw and the legendary singer/actor Frank Sinatra. She also had a 20-year relationship with the eccentric tycoon, Howard Hughes. Her final years were spent living in a central London flat, where she died in 1990.

In her mid-60s and suffering the after affects of a stroke, Ava needs the cash that an autobiography could generate. McGovern slips comfortably into the role of the brittle fading star, chain smoking and sipping spirits. Anatol Yusef looks beleaguered as Evans, caught between a demanding publisher and an often uncooperative Ava. Yusef also takes on the roles of all three husbands in short flashback scenes. As the play’s title indicates, all the interactions are conversations, but they are only at a superficial level and neither Ava nor the other characters are given enough depth to become really interesting or to create believable dramatic tension. 

Director Gaby Dellal’s production is elaborate, possibly more so than the simply constructed play requires. The set, designed by 59 Productions, has the London flat at its heart and is framed as if it is a cinema screen which expands or contracts for different scenes. The suggestion that we could be watching a film documentary, intercut with real life footage, is not helpful. The production needs to be an insightful and involving drama rather than a recital of easily researched facts.

The play foretells its own biggest problem – that rags-to-riches stories set in Hollywood’s Golden Age are already over familiar. Evans’ publishers recognised this, urging him to spice things up and, similarly,  the stage version needs more sparks to ignite the drams. The conversations hold back their juiciest secrets and this life story of a once shining star seems distinctly lacklustre.

Performance date: 25 January 2022

Conundrum (Young Vic Theatre)

Posted: January 20, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer and director: Paul Anthony Morris


As children, we believe that anything is possible, that we can become whatever we choose and that no obstacles will stand in our way. Looking back at those aspirations in middle age, how many of us will feel disappointed? Conundrum is a new 75-minute one-act play, written and directed by Paul Anthony Morris, which explores the gulf between childhood dreams and adult reality.

Fidel (Anthony Ofoegbu, articulating the character’s thoughts as in a monologue) was a child of the 1970s. Now, in lockdown, he sifts through old diary entries, exam results and letters of rejection for jobs which all give as their reason that he is “over-qualified”. The papers are put through the shredder. He strains to recall the sort of facts learned at school that prove to be useless in later life, adding them to a jumble of words laid across the stage floor in Sean Cavanagh’s design. 

Confidently, Fidel boasts that he was ten times brighter than any other kid, but he offers little corroboration and Morris never reveals whether he had been just a cocky brat or a genuine talent who had gone on to under-achieve. Further, we are not told precisely how Fidel has been a disappointment as an adult, but we see him driven by his perceived failures to a mental breakdown, needing to be injected with sedatives by a psychiatrist (Filip Krenus). He perceives his fate as having been pre-ordained by the circumstances into which he was born and which would always remain outside his control.

Ofoegbu grabs this rather depressing piece by the throat and delivers a performance of intense visceral power, heightened by balletic movement directed by Shane Shambhu. So remarkable is the actor that he produces the presumably unwanted effect of making this production of a play, which is built on a thin and somewhat obvious premise, seem overblown. When Fidel states that he has been a victim of racism (so indoctrinated with it that he had contributed to his own failures), it feels as if Morris is throwing in a weighty theme almost as an afterthought and the ideas which could arise from it are never properly developed.

“I know who I am” exclaims Fidel repeatedly, as if reaching this point is equal to unearthing the meaning of life, but Morris does not invite the audience to share in his discovery. Posing unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions, the play is profoundly puzzling. It is a tough watch, but, nonetheless, Ofoegbu is spellbinding.

Performance date: 19 January 2022

Folk (Hampstead Theatre Downstairs)

Posted: January 5, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Robert Day

Writer: Nell Leyshon

Director: Roxana Silbert


In the age of streaming, music can become everyone’s property within seconds of it being made available, but, in the not too distant past, songs were not written down or recorded. They belonged to individuals, families and communities, passed down from generation to generation. Nell Leyshon’s new two-act play, receiving its world premiere here, explores the place of traditional folk songs in rapidly changing times.

It is 1903 in rural Somerset and sisters Lucy and Louie occupy a small squatters’ cottage from which they work as glove makers. Their mother has died recently, leaving her songs implanted firmly in Louie’s head. While Lucy flirts with local boy John and plots an escape into the wider world, Louie mourns and she eventually meets a visiting academic, Sharp. He claims that Scotland, Wales and Ireland all have traditional folk songs, but not England, so he makes it his mission to discover the songs that define the English nation, put them onto paper and rearrange them.

In this studio theatre, Rose Revitt’s design has a strong Autumnal feel, suggesting the end of an era and director Roxana Silbert’s gently paced, un-melodramatic production underlines the sense of loss. A glove making factory is moving in to take the sisters’ work and popular entertainment is threatening to claim their mother’s songs. Their traditional ways of life are being swept away in a tidal wave of industrial and commercial forces..

Mariam Haque is outstanding as Louie, sorrowful, withdrawn and seemingly of low intellect, but finding steely resolve to defend what she believes to be her heritage. She also sings the songs sweetly, although, sadly, we hear too few of them. Simon Robson gives Sharp an air of educated arrogance, which is countered by the character’s admission of his own lack of musical talent. Sasha Frost as Lucy and Ben Allen as John make a zestful couple, hoping to improve their lives and become a spur for inevitable change.

At the heart of the play lie conflicting arguments between Sharp and Louie for progress and preservation, both presented by Leyshon in articulate form (perhaps more articulate than would be consistent with the character of a “simple” country girl). However the family drama in which the debates are encased feels too flimsy and contrived to be gripping and the play ends up as quietly charming, but short of dramatic substance.

Performance date: 4 January 2022