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AVA: The Secret Conversations at Riverside Studios | Review

The so-called ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ always attracts a certain nostalgia, and in this meandering retelling of the life and times of Ava Gardner, the writing fails to completely tear herself away from the rose-tinted spectacles of glitz and glamour.

AVA: The Secret Conversations - Photo by Bonnie Britain.
AVA: The Secret Conversations – Photo by Bonnie Britain.

A slightly sad journalist by the name of Peter Evans (Anatol Yusef) is at first quiet when meeting Hollywood royalty Ava Gardner (Elizabeth McGovern). However, as this wordy play winds on, he warms and eventually falls in love with the captivating Gardner. He interviews her for an upcoming biography. Ava: The Secret Conversations is based on a book of the same name, and I hope I am not spoiling things by saying that the couple do not end on good terms. The troubles of her previous relationships with the likes of Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra loom over both the stage and her outlook on life.

The subject of and author of a biography developing an intimate relationship is a tried and tested formula and offers actors a real chance to play. And while McGovern is excellent in the titular role, the onstage chemistry left a lot to be desired. Yusef is initially convincing as a burnt-out journalist but lacks charisma and naturalness in the role that could have gifted us with a terrific show. This is unfortunate given that in a two-hander, their relationship will almost certainly decide whether it sinks or swims. It does swim – McGovern is subtle and brilliantly portrays the tiredness of a Hollywood veteran with elegance and nuance.

Design, and the literal framing of the play, is the most intriguing component of this play. The black curtain at the front never comes up. Instead, we are shown different aspect ratios displaying confined areas of the stage. This reminder of cinema’s role in the story is reinforced by the casual glamour of Studio 59’s costuming of Gardner. Studio 59 (Design) captures the sad journalist with ease and has excellently sculpted the aesthetic of an old-time Hollywood sex symbol.

Yusef plays the three men Gardner was married to, and while this had potential as a concept, the execution falls short. When playing Mickey Rooney, the dramatic gimmick has a playfulness to it; however, as Frank Sinatra, there is a tinge of corniness and lacks the weight it reaches for.

It is gentle and thoughtful at times; however, I was not enthralled by the relationship that was played out over ninety minutes. The two leads lacked a relationship that held the depth and meaning needed. At the same time, the design was stellar, and Elizabeth McGovern is phenomenal.

3 Star Review

Review by Tom Carter

Part memory play, part sparring match, through this tense and witty play Ava and Peter debate, fight and flirt their way through the memories of Ava’s fabulous life as they struggle to get the story straight. Expect a rich sensory journey through Ava’s whisky-soaked recollections of her life as an actor and with her three famous husbands – Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.

Director Gaby Dellal
Design 59 Productions
Costume Design Fotini Dimou
Lighting Design Elliot Griggs
Sound Design Ella Wahlström
Cast Elizabeth McGovern and Anatol Yusef

AVA: The Secret Conversations
18th January – 16th April 2022
https://riversidestudios.co.uk/

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