“Elizabeth Taylor is not beautiful – she is pretty. I was beautiful” – Ava Gardner. A Hollywood starlet known not only for her starring roles in Showboat, Whistle Stop and The Killers, but her array of famous husbands – namely, the one and only Frank Sinatra. Elizabeth McGovern’s play is based on the book The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, written in Ava’s later life.
This is where the play drops in – Peter Evans (Anatol Yusef), receiving the call from Ava Gardner (Elizabeth McGovern), asking him to ghost write her autobiography. McGovern does a solid job portraying the scatty, foul-mouthed and quirky Ava, with a patchy North Carolina drawl. After a tumultuous life, and two strokes leaving her partially paralysed and bed-ridden, Ava turns to drink. Running out of cash fast, she decides that writing an autobiography is more preferable than selling her jewellery. Yusef plays charming British journalist, Peter Evans, and as he spends time with Ava writing her book, he effortlessly drifts into the roles of the men in her life: Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, and George C Scott. He does a decent Frank Sinatra, but movement and dance scenes between himself and McGovern are cringe-worthy and awkward.
It’s safe to say that the main highlight of this show is the stage design by 59 Productions. The use of video projection is stunning, with seasons changing through the windows, and scenes from Ava’s movies and interviews projected across the set. The whole show is brought to life with this innovative design, which unfortunately, the script fails to match.
It’s hard to fathom why this script was written. It feels as though we’re supposed to be against Peter’s crass agent, speaking as a voiceover throughout, asking about Sinatra’s penis. We are led to believe that there is more to Ava’s story than the men she married. However, it’s difficult to pinpoint stories in Ava’s life that don’t include her love life in some way. The play attempts to wrap everything up at the end, painting Ava as an inspirational mess – any man who had lived her life would have been praised for it. This conclusion feels misplaced, as the play spends most of the time showcasing the famous men, multi-roled by Yusef, rather than Ava, the woman apparently at the centre of the story.
Sadly, although there are some interesting elements to her story, it ultimately isn’t enough to make a show as dazzling as the late Ava Gardner herself.