Riverside Studios in Hammersmith is perhaps more associated as a TV studio rather than a theatre venue, but it has more than one string to its bow with more and more shows choosing it as a venue to play to audiences. Currently taking up residency is the premiere of brand new play - Ava - The Secret Conversations, playing nightly to engrossed audiences.
Inspired by the life of legendary American actress and singer Ava Gardner, Ava is an intimate two-hander, based on the book The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner herself, published posthumously. The setting of the play sees Ava recount her life story to Peter Evans who is ghost writing the book, flashing between Ava's present and her past as she revisits her ex lovers.
The role of Ava Gardner is played by Academy award and Golden Globe nominee Elizabeth McGovern, who also wrote the play. You may be most familiar with McGovern recently for her role in Downton Abbey but it is clear to see why she has had such an illustrious career. Effortlessly stepping in to the shoes (figuratively - she's barefoot here) of Ava, she embodies her completely, giving a believable, nuanced and authentic performance as the star in her twilight years and delivering what can only be described as a masterclass in acting ability.
Anatol Yusuf is the sole other person on the stage, playing not only writer Peter Evans but also her ex-husbands Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney. Anatol shows great versatility though some characters are admittedly portrayed stronger than others with Frank Sinatra almost descending into parody. The plot device that allows Anatol to play these multiple characters sees Peter impersonating her past lovers, presumably manipulating Ava as her memory gets confused. As this happens, the lines get blurred so it is never clear how much of this is manipulation and how much is revisiting the past. A clever device leaving it up to audience interpretation, though the transitions were sometimes clunky and not as smooth as you would hope.
My biggest disappointment with this show was how Ava ended up portrayed as a supporting character in her own show. For a show about Ava Gardner herself and based on a book she had co-written, it felt like she solely existed as an accomplice to her famous ex-husbands. It feels rich considering one of her ex husbands famously sung 'My Way' that there is nothing to be said of her way here at all. There was clearly more to Ava Gardner than her marriages, so not spending more time examining her own identity away from her husbands felt like a disservice to such a legendary figure. Surely Ava Gardner was not solely defined by the men in her life? And even if she was at the time she was alive, isn't the point of theatre to push the narrative further? I couldn't help feeling that more could have been done when telling her life story.
Sometimes the storytelling felt very one note. I was longing for more variety. Moments where it looked like things could explode between the pair as truths came to light seemed to fizzle out before it even started. Moments which touched upon darker subjects such as the abuse Ava suffered at the hands of Howard Hughes were brushed under the carpet before it even had a chance to be explored. Similarly, the show ended quickly and quietly without a satisfying conclusion. While the two actors really were fantastic, it came very close to becoming boring at times, though admittedly never quite reached that, capturing my interest for the full 90 minutes.
One of the strongest aspects of the show was the staging of the piece. While Riverside Studios can be a fairly large and cold setting, the unique staging filled it with life and heart. Opening up various parts of the stage at the time gave the illusion we were watching it being filmed as characters moved from one side to the other, never revealing the full setting. Gorgeous set design from 59 Productions made the space come alive as it transported across the decades. The use of real video footage from Ava's life breaking up the various scenes was an inspired touch, elevating the piece and creating feeling from the audience, especially those more familiar with Ava's life and career.
Ava is worth the ticket price alone for the chance to see an incredible performer like Elizabeth McGovern in such an intimate setting. While the show may have its flaws and can feel unfinished at times, it carries with it top class acting and a script boasting some witty lines and a small amount of heart. Though never quite allowing the audience to fall in love with Ava in her own right is a real missed opportunity. Bringing more heart and her own identity into the play would elevate this into something special. That said, Ava is still a highly enjoyable piece of theatre and definitely worth a watch.
Ava plays at Riverside Studios until April 16th 2022. Tickets available from https://www.riversidestudios.co.uk/