Saturday, March 12 was a beautiful, sunny day in London and very exciting for me and my daughter, Ava Malissa. We were in London to see the play, Ava: The Secret Conversations, with Elizabeth McGovern in the starring role as a mature Ava Gardner living in London in the 1980s. This was a very satisfying and comfortable existence for my beloved aunt, Ava Gardner. She had a home at 34 Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge of which she was very proud. She had wonderful friends who were in and out of her residence, visiting frequently. As a matter of fact, it was a busy place. Not only did she have friends just popping in, but she also loved to entertain there. Ava Malissa and I were able to visit in the Garden on Thursday, March 9 and reconnect with two of the nearby residents. Flowers were in bloom and Springtime London was coming to life – so picturesque!
During their trip, Ava Thompson and her daughter Ava Malissa toured around Ava Gardner's former London neighborhood of Knightsbridge. After calling on some of Ava Gardner's former neighbors and friends, they were able to walk through the community's private garden and see the stone, memorial urn dedicated to their beloved relative.
Our morning began with a quiet breakfast at the St. Ermin’s Hotel. Afterwards, we struck out for Riverside Studios to meet Elizabeth for a chat before the evening show. On arrival, we were met by Olivia Kerslake, Deputy Stage Manager, and escorted into the theatre. Olivia is an exuberant individual, and we were immediately made to feel at ease. Following our conversation with Elizabeth, we took photos with her for the Press Association.
One of the first things that struck us was the small size of the stage and backstage area. Sitting amongst the scenery with Elizabeth for the photos made us feel like we might have tumbled off the small area into the orchestra pit. This small area made us appreciate even more the magic that 59 Productions made in staging this production with all the changing scenes. It was truly amazing! Nothing in the production was static. The scenery and special effects kept one’s attention throughout the duration of the play. My hat goes off to 59 Productions for bringing this production to life!
In advance of attending an evening performance of the play, Ava Thompson and Ava Malissa spent time exploring the unique set and digital backdrops of Ava: The Secret Conversations at Riverside Studios. They also connected with Elizabeth McGovern before and after the performance to discuss the show and share stories about the real Ava Gardner.
The photo session went smoothly, and we gave Elizabeth a small token of our appreciation – a memento from Ava’s London residence. She seemed most grateful and said she truly felt a connection to Ava which pleased us immensely! We were off then to the heart of London so Elizabeth could prepare for her matinee performance.
On our return for the 8pm show, we slipped in a little early to have a cocktail, which gave us an opportunity to observe all of the buzz in the lobby very quietly without notice. It did not take long for the production folks to spot us and whisk us away for more photos and a pre-show interview. I will have to say Zoë Simpson and Nick Rice, who handled publicity for the show, were great and incredibly professional in all they did!
We were seated very nicely in the theatre amid so many adoring Ava fans. What a wonderful audience! The play was funny at times which delighted us and the viewers around us. We enjoyed the audience reaction immensely. Elizabeth delivered Ava’s witty one-liners with perfect comedic timing!
As the play’s writer and star, Elizabeth McGovern fully immersed herself in Ava Gardner's life and career to bring a mature interpretation of her to the stage. Of the role, McGovern said, "I kind of fell in love with her so I wanted to share her story, [and] I feel qualified to draw from my own experience in order to explore the subject [of Ava Gardner]."
What can I say to really describe the feeling in the theatre? I was immediately captured as soon as Elizabeth entered the stage in Ava’s regal yet humble way, and I was totally entertained throughout the performance. Isn’t that what we go to the theatre for – escape from the mundane and total immersion in the moment? I just can’t find enough good words to describe how pleased I was with Elizabeth’s performance. This was a passion project for her, and, from the beginning, six years ago, I knew she would bring the depth and breadth of her skill and experience as an actress to the stage. She did exactly that – she was amazing portraying a mature Ava Gardner. In the final scene, I became misty eyed! So effective in delivery of affect!
Anatol Yusef is a delightful young actor with impressive credits, and what a tremendous role he played. He started as Peter Evans and, as the play progressed, he morphed into all three of Ava’s husbands. His “Mickey” was so cute, and so well done! His Artie was almost frightening and seemed to me to be “spot on.” His Frank was believable in his “down and out demeaner.” What a big role done so very well.
The production required actor Anatol Yusef to transform before the audience's eyes into four very different characters – author Peter Evans and Ava Gardner's three husbands, Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra.
I loved the fact that the play realistically and with the appropriate complexities portrayed all three of Ava’s husbands. Aunt Ava once said she loved completely but did not choose wisely. This statement was made clear in the production! As much as she wanted her marriages to succeed, the choices Ava made with each of her husbands forbode outcomes that were beyond her control.
As for other realistic presentations, one must remember this play is not biographical. It is about the relationship between ghostwriter Peter Evans and Ava Gardner. It is also a fictionalized work. As Director, Gabby Dellal said, “Once we are telling a story in a play situation it is no longer fact. We are all bringing our take on the story, so I am not sure it remains true. … [W]e are suspending reality, as a director I try not to be constrained. For me, the best theatre transports away from reality.”
Following Elizabeth McGovern's visit and photoshoot with Ava Thompson and Ava Malissa, she kindly autographed one of the play's posters. When the Co-Trustees returned to North Carolina, they graciously presented the signed poster to Executive Director Lynell Seabold so this unique artifact will now be part of the Ava Gardner Museum's permanent collection.
As representatives of the family of Ava Gardner and as Co-Trustees of the Ava Gardner Trust, I can honestly say this is great entertainment. We were immensely pleased with every aspect and highly recommend these 90 minutes of pure entertainment! It moves very fast and keeps the audience engaged! We love it, and we adore Elizabeth! We look forward to future opportunities for this wonderful production to be seen by Ava fans around the world.
After the performance, we had a celebratory dinner at Sam’s Riverside with Elizabeth and the producer Karl Sydow and his wife Anita. How pleasant! Elizabeth is so down-to-earth and so relatable – just like Ava! They would have been great friends in real life! Karl and Anita are also so warm and friendly. Dinner was followed by a river walk, and we arrived back at the hotel around 2am. By the way, the bubbly was an extra-special vintage! Loved it!
To hear more about Ava Thompson and Ava Malissa's thoughts and impressions of the play, Ava: The Secret Conversations, as well as other details about their trip to London, check out our latest episode of the Museum's virtual program Ava Chats. You can watch it for free on the Ava Gardner Museum's YouTube channel here.