Review: Ava – The Secret Conversations

A bit of Hollywood has come to Hammersmith with the opening of Elizabeth McGovern’s play about Ava Gardner.

Inspired by Peter Evans’s biography, released after Gardner’s death, McGovern stars as the actress in the last years of her life, living in London. She had made her last screen appearances in 1986, for television, and died in 1990.

Watching the real Ava – and we have the odd glimpse, on film, here – captures her beauty and mystique. Neglected, perhaps, today, she was a huge star in the 1940s and 1950s. At one point in this play McGovern’s Gardner asserts she has been robbed of her voice by the star system at MGM: deliciously foul-mouthed and candid, she wants to redress the balance.

Elizabeth McGovern in Ava: The Secret Conversations

It could be said that Evans’s book, which I found tabloid level unreliable, and McGovern’s play, conspire to keep that voice quiet. As the agent’s disembodied voice asserts, a biography wants the three husbands (Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra) and Howard Hughes. Not Ava.

The set by 59 Productions often shrinks to mimic different aspect ratios like a film, utilising projections to anchor scenes or present moments from the real lives of those on stage. You could be watching through binoculars or as a voyeur, peeping behind the curtain.

Sometimes this works (one image or song of Sinatra eclipses any imitation) but is often jarring. If you didn’t know Gardner met Mickey Rooney for the first time on a film set when he was imitating Carmen Miranda you may be bewildered by this footage of him.

McGovern is good as Gardner, nailing the accent, the survival instinct and the brittleness of a fading star. There is little chemistry with her co-star, Anatol Yusef though, which fatally wounds the moments where Evans morphs into each of the star’s three husbands.

Artie Shaw represented in Ava: The Secret Conversations

The writing feels as if it needs a few lines of red pencil to be truly effective; and there are moments where we would definitely benefit from knowing more about why Gardner was drawn to controlling, childish and abusive men.

Gaby Dellal’s direction is good at the small moments which catch the psyche of a star who knows she is on the slide; but less so when it comes to dealing with that looks like delusion on both sides as the journalist and actress toy with each other.

I can’t help feeling Ava Gardner gets a bad rep here, despite McGovern’s professed devotion to her. She is somewhat castigated for three marriages and a few extramarital affairs, but Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw both married eight times; Sinatra four. She should not be defined by men alone.

Ava: The Secret Conversations is playing at Riverside Studios in Studio 2 until 16 April. Book your tickets here.

Image credit: Marc Brenner