Last Updated on January 29, 2022
All about Ava
I’m a little bit in love with the myth of Ava Gardner, Hollywood femme fatale and friend, wife or lover of a cast of players that includes Ernest Hemingway, Howard Hughes, Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra. I visited Hemingway’s house in Havana a few years back. The author’s writing room is at the top of the tower from where he used to watch Gardner swim naked in the pool. Hemingway’s wife was so enraged that she threw Gardner’s clothes out. The actress coolly came down for dinner dressed only in her birthday suit – she was that kind of woman.
Academy Award-nominee actor Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) has turned scriptwriter and penned the play Ava: The Secret Conversations that has just opened at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. It is based on the book of the same name, co-written in 1980s London by journalist Peter Evans and Ava Gardner herself which gives it a warts and all ring of authenticity. McGovern plays Gardner near the end of her life with her health deteriorating and a glass of booze always to hand. But in flashbacks we see her younger self and McGovern is particularly affecting as the gawky, teenage ingenue version of Gardner being seduced by Rooney.
The Downton star is joined on stage by Anatol Yusef (Boardwalk Empire) who plays Evans in this production, as well as fleshing out the characters of Ava’s trio of husbands Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra. McGovern has a natural elegance and style and a deliciously feline quality which is perfect for the role as well as an irresistably husky Southern twang to her voice. She sashays across the stage toying with the much younger Evans who is trying to worm out as much juicy gossip as he can from the fading star. His agent, the legendary Ed Victor, played in voiceover, is particularly obsessed by Frank Sinatra’s penis but Gardner is coy about releasing too much information. Some of the best scenes are those between the writer, initially disbelieving that he has been offered the job, and Gardner as the power relationship between the ebbs and flows between them; but despite the inherent tensions in the drama, the play never quite catches fire . The scenes where Yusef interprets the three husbands are more uneven; his take on Mickey Rooney captures the actor’s youthful bumptiousness but his Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra are less successful and he probably shouldn’t attempt to capture Ol’ Blue Eyes’ singing voice.
The design by 59 Productions is gorgeous with clever use of back projection, split-level staging and a stylish set, that smartly evokes Gardner’s London Knightsbridge pad as well as the changing weather outside. Despite the caveats AVA: The Secret Conversations is a fascinating and intimate exploration of the life and loves of one of Hollywood’s greatest icons. It gives a clear-sighted account of the issues women had to deal with at that time even if they were as successful and powerful as Ava Gardner. If you are a fan of Old Hollywood it’s definitely worth seeing and I can see McGovern’s cool take on the icon ending up on celluloid.
AVA: The Secret Conversations
101 Queen Caroline Street,
Hammersmith, London W6 9BN
Nearest tube station is Hammersmith (Circle, District, Hammersmith and City, and Piccadilly lines)18th January – 16th April 2022 Tuesday – Saturday, 8pm Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 3pm
Tickets are priced £20, £40, £57.50 (except on Friday and Saturday evenings: £20, £40, £62.50) from https://www.riversidestudios.co.uk/ and 020 8237 1010