Ava: The Secret Conversations (Riverside Studios)

Posted: January 29, 2022 in Theatre
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

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