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Ava: The Secret Conversations review: Elizabeth McGovern paints an uneven portrait of a dying Hollywood star

Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern is pretty much interested in her Ava Gardner impression. It’s actually a whole show. She wrote this unequaled biopic as a vehicle for her talent to pose as a lustful and gluttonous Hollywood star. And while she makes up Dustbowl’s compelling voiceover, the script doesn’t do much to make Gardner’s story a compelling proposition.

Ava advertised as a “memory play”, a term suggesting a Tennessee Williams-esque collection of tender flashbacks, shrouded in nostalgia and regret. Reality is different. Yes, there is some sad light. But there’s also a cranky British journalist obsessed with ex-husband Frank Sinatra’s penis size. McGovern based her story on the book of the same name, a tabloid book by Peter Evans. He’s desperate for the kind of breaking news that can keep his kids in private school. She is obsessed with her own image, and is constantly receiving swearing phone calls at 3 a.m. and blasphemous malice about her bladder.

The story is structured as a series of conversations between this irreconcilable couple. “I messed up my life,” says Gardner, “but I never made jam. She lacks Mae West’s talent for an epigram. But what she gets is she’s always been original, with the courage to follow her heart in three brief, passionate marriages to three of Hollywood’s biggest names: Mickey Rooney , Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. She’s candid about her abortion, her once-a-day cravings for sex, and about the physical consequences of the stroke that nearly ended her career.

Director Gaby Dellal’s production department interspersed these flashbacks with projected cinematic sequences of Gardner’s heyday: a famous dance scene from the 1954 film Barefoot Contessa repeated, showing her swaying her hips to the beat of a low drum. Gardner knows about sex and how to sell it. But there’s still something disappointing about this story’s relentless focus on her love life, at the expense of pretty much everything else about Gardner and her journey through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

It was a corollary of McGovern’s choice to adapt a book that was essentially a ludicrous narrative in the 1990s tabloid tradition. And McGovern tried harder to turn his original material into an image. The higher the intellectual level, the less successful this play. At points, Anatol Yusef transforms from a bluff journalist into Gardner’s various lovers: it’s horrible to watch. This play doesn’t have the depth to be a drama about how dynamics in a relationship repeat and ripple over time, or about how men use Gardner’s sexuality to control her. The dance scenes weren’t equally successful – less of the Hollywood glamor, many aunts and uncles were accused of slowing down at a wedding disco.

As the story progresses, 59 Productions’ lavish setting design cleverly makes the real world of Gardner’s apartment disappear, replaced by the clinical white of the set (or perhaps, a world) across). The money was clearly spent. But the real sense of story progression needs to come from the story, not the landscape. In the end, it feels like a weak, bitterly odd attempt to capture the light of a star that has faded from cultural memory.

‘Ava: The Secret Conversations’ runs at Riverside Studios until April 16

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/ava-review-elizabeth-mcgovern-riverside-studios-b2000944.html Ava: The Secret Conversations review: Elizabeth McGovern paints an uneven portrait of a dying Hollywood star

Tom Vazquez

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