Ava: The Secret Conversations by Elizabeth McGovern. The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London W6 to 16 April 2022. 3***. William Russell.

Elizabeth McGovern has crafted an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying play about Ava Gardner which has been very over produced by director Gaby Dellal – the set, Gardner’s flat in Ennismore Gardens, London, where she died in 1990 more or less broke, is framed in moveable screens so that it expands or focuses down on one person a bit like a camera lens. It is a tricksy idea which ,while occasionally effective, proves ultimately deeply distracting.
Ava played by McGovern is in need of money. The journalist Peter Evans, played by Anatol Yusef, is sent by the would be publisher to be the ghost writer and we see their relationship developing as she recalls her past, her marriages, and the price paid for stardom until their co-operation breaks down as he wants one kind of book she another. Her publisher has other ideas too of what is needed for it to sell. In the end the book appeared as Evans wanted it to after her death and it is the basis for McGovern’s play.
Gardner was a star. She was not the greatest actress to achieve Hollywood stardom but she was one of the most beautiful, a girl from a poor, but not down and out she insists, South Carolina family discovered by a talent scout who saw her photograph when she went to live in New York. The result was she ended up in Hollywood with a contract from Louis B Mayer, appeared in bit parts for several years before becoming a star in The Killers in 1946, married Mickey Rooney, then the biggest star around, for a sex filled nine months, before moving on to the band leader Artie Shaw and finally Frank Sinatra. There were other affairs, one with Howard Hughes, with Ernest Hemingway and she had a passion for bull fighters. Earthy on screen and off a her language was peppered with four letter words. She lived her life in public until those final sad years in London.
One trouble, the production style apart, with the evening is that Evans comes across as a creep leaching onto the actress, who is in a terrifyingly fragile state – she has had a stroke, she is drinking heavily and she knows her days are coming to an end. One really needs to like him if the role is to work as the conduit to knowing the actress. The other is that McGovern, beautiful though she is, cannot conjure up the essence of Gardner. Shots from her films, photographs with her husbands are used from time to time, projected on the back all of the apartment and at the very end that prism set focuses down onto McGovern dressed in black posing as Ava did a million times. But the “reality”, which we have just seen in a shot of Gardner dancing with a bull fighter, destroys the illusion McGovern is so carefully trying to construct which we are meant to take away with us. Good though she is she is not, as Ava says, “the woman men dream about.” Yusef, who plays Evans, as well as Rooney, Shaw and Sinatra, provides fine support moving seamlessly from one character to the next.
The play, however, is interesting even if unsatisfactory, full of wisecracks as Gardner had a way with words, and a stark reminder of the price of stardom. She was beautiful and ill fated, used by the men in her life, but also a woman who lived life by her own rules.

Elizabeth McGovern: Ava.
Anatol Yusef: Peter Evans, Rooney, Shaw, Sinatra

Director: Gaby Dellal.
Design: 59 productions.
Costume Design: Fotini Dimou.
Lighting Design: Elliot Griggs.
Sound Design: Ella Wahlstrom.
Production Photography: Marc Brenner.

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