Elizabeth McGovern has adapted the book Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by journalist Peter Evans for the stage. Published posthumously, the book takes the format of reported conversations between Evans and Gardner in the final years of her life, after she’d endured a stroke. The stage version follows this format, with McGovern first appearing in drab grey jogging bottoms, her speech slurred, sitting by the window of her Hyde Park penthouse, where Gardner spent the final years of her life until she died aged 67.
McGovern plays Ava as mercurial and crotchety, yet self-deprecating. She clutches one arm and sucks at cigarettes, toying with Evans (Anatol Yusef) as he tries desperately to extract kiss-and-tell stories about her husbands: Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. McGovern gives a spectacular performance and it’s astonishing to watch the metamorphosis as she shifts between the post-stroke Ava and the young ingenue, fresh from ‘dustbowl California’ aged 18 on her first day at MGM studios, all sweet and wide-eyed.
The motif is the loss, not just of Gardner’s faded star, but of the golden age of cinema itself. When you can binge-watch an entire season of Succession on your commute, there’s no LaLa land magic to it. The stage and set do a lot of the work in conveying this idea. 59 Productions have made a set that is both Ava’s London flat and her LA apartment, a New York skyline and Artie Shaw’s library room. Lighting conveys a sunset in Hollywood, a rainy day in Hyde Park and late moonlit nights. It comprises several black boxes, dissecting the action into smaller and larger views, like a movie theatre or through a camera lens and the scenes are interspersed with projected clips of Ava, Artie, Sinatra et al, conjuring a fluid dreamscape, in which we are reminded of the romance of those old Hollywood pictures.
This is counterpointed by Gardner’s reality – of being beaten up, coerced and diminished by the men who said they loved her. Ava’s accent was considered so rough that she was dubbed over for most of her career and for the first few years she was signed with MGM she didn’t even get to act. But, like Ava forgetting her dog’s name, any clear message about how Hollywood did and does view women disappears, to be replaced by a cringey dance sequence between McGovern and Yusef, who, while both are great performers, lack any chemistry together. Through Ava’s retelling, Evans transforms into each of her former husbands and maybe with a different actor, this conceit would have swept us up, but instead, it felt rather flat as Yusef was unconvincing, particularly as the blue-eyed charmer Sinatra.
Direction by Gaby Dellal is clear and intentional, but often diminishes the jokes McGovern has worked into the text. A comment from Evans about this book making his career that could be played for laughs is hidden in a plea for Gardner to push on with her story-telling –and an innuendo from Gardner about Marlon Brando telling her his brain wasn’t the only part of him that had gone soft was given a mumbled punchline. The Downton fans who are likely to see this show might appreciate it being played more for laughs than it is at the moment.
I read the book, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations as preparation for interviewing McGovern for The Telegraph, ahead of the show and if the play has one major failing, it’s that it follows the source text far too closely. Watching the play was as close to the experience of reading Evans’ biography as a play could be. Ava’s famous quotes, such as: “You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey: She made movies, she made out, and she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam,” lose their potency and feel they’ve been forced into the script. If this run at Riverside Studios is intended as an elaborate pitch for a movie adaptation, McGovern may well have pulled it off, but as a play in its own right, it doesn’t quite offer enough emotional heft to really captivate audiences beyond Downton Fans and lovers of 1950s black and white films. That said, McGovern’s performance shone throughout.
Thu 27th Jan – Sat 16th April 2022
Written by: Elizabeth McGovern
Based on the book The Secret Conversations
Directed by Gaby Dellal
Design by 59 Productions