Pros: Live music, good performances
Cons: Struggles to convey either the glamour or the excess of the era and the marriage
Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD) alumnus, Anthony Orme, has written and produced a short play about the turbulent marriage of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. It features a cast of fellow alumni, and for this Edinburgh preview, is staged in a studio space at the back of the RCSSD campus. I am full of admiration for the ambition and resourcefulness required to create a show like this, from scratch, on what is no doubt the skinniest of shoestrings.
The story starts at the end, with Ava walking out on Frank and leaving him half-mad with grief. It then tracks back to their courtship and eventual marriage, through flashback scenes that show the lovers together, or talking with their respective confidantes. The advantage of this approach is that the show opens with a bit of sound and fury. The disadvantage is that the ending is predictable and a bit flat. It is a tall order to compress the story of a tempestuous six-year marriage into 45 minutes. While the play does succeed in covering the main events, I wonder if it would have done better to focus on a shorter time period, allowing for a more in-depth approach. The script does, however, effectively convey the inequality in Ava and Frank’s fortunes during this period, and the shared terror of fading stardom.
The cast are uniformly good, although Orme himself seems particularly comfortable in the role of bartender Joe. Ryan Heenan multi-roles effortlessly, while Matt Dennis Concannon and Holly Sumpton throw themselves into the roles of Sinatra and Gardner, with Sumpton also showcasing an impressive singing voice. But the script, the set and the harsh lighting conspire against a really compelling portrayal of either star. The small stage constrains their movement, so it’s hard to get a sense of their presence; the lighting shows up Sumpton’s short, naked nails (MGM would never have stood for that!), and the script treats Gardner as she complains that Sinatra treats her – very gently. She comes across as coquettish rather than predatory, and there’s little sign of the heavy smoking, hard drinking, wisecracking enfant terrible.
The set is simple, with just a bar on one side, and a couple of musicians (aka the jukebox) on the other. With the seating right up close to the stage, and live jazz playing, it feels pleasantly like being an after-hours guest in the bar. One For My Baby has a lot going for it. It has a talented cast; good musicians; a clever interweaving of music with narrative, and is based on an intriguing true story. But it is not yet the finished article. It would instantly be elevated by just a little extra cash for perfectly fitted costumes, an atmospheric venue, more flattering lighting design, and a trip to the nail bar.
For One For My Baby really to hit the high notes, Orme needs to get darker and dirtier with the script. Show us the cruelty, jealousy, betrayal and passion. Show us the glamour, the media scrutiny and the bad behaviour. This is the story of two big beasts, and it deserves a wilder treatment.
Author: Anthony Orme
Director: Anthony Orme
Booking Until: This show has now ended its run at RCSSD