Ava, review: Elizabeth McGovern is a splendid screen siren, but the play's a drag

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A star is torn: Anatol Yusef and Elizabeth McGovern - Marc Brenner
A star is torn: Anatol Yusef and Elizabeth McGovern - Marc Brenner

In the late 1980s, with money tight and her health wrecked by much smoking, drinking and a stroke that had left her partially paralysed, former Hollywood goddess Ava Gardner decided to do what she had forsworn: tell her life story.

A ghost-writer – a reputable British journalist called Peter Evans – was invited to undertake the task, and entered the lair of her apartment in Knightsbridge for a succession of recorded tete a tetes. As Lee Server, who wrote a thorough and admired biography in 2006, notes in passing. “When she was sober, [Ava] recalled enough of what she had said in her uninhibited state to know that as far as she was concerned not a word of it was going into any goddamn book.”

The collaboration ended – Gardner (who died in 1990) taking particular fright on learning that Frank Sinatra, her third husband, had once tried to sue Evans. But, in 2013, a year after the latter’s death, there emerged a racily titled book, Ava: The Secret Conversations, imparting the fruits of Evans’ sedentary encounters spiced with a resume of how he handled the once fast-living legend.

You can see why the American actress and erstwhile Downton star Elizabeth McGovern, plucking the tome from a shelf, might have felt inspired to bring it to the stage – a nice part for her and a decent challenge for an actor to inhabit Evans and the leading men in Gardner’s life, including ol’ Blue Eyes, and hubbies one (Mickey Rooney) and two (Artie Shaw). How, though, to avoid it looking like a theatrically misplaced radio play, or R4 Book of the Week?

Here, alas, she’s stumped, even though her director Gaby Dellal, who has copious TV and film credits, has recruited 59 Productions, pioneers in mixing projection with performance, to deliver a cinematically suggestive experience. Archival footage of Gardner, along with that of her spouses, provides relief from the static Q&A set-up. The weather outside is picturesquely conveyed and elaborate things are done with sliding panels so that it looks like the mode of capturing the scene has shifted, say, to a wide-angle lens or sudden close-up.

Fast-living legend: Ava Gardner - Corbis Historical/Getty
Fast-living legend: Ava Gardner - Corbis Historical/Getty

All this serves to reinforce the impression, however, of rudimentary dramatic fare being fancily dressed up, one furthered by McGovern’s decision to undergo multiple costume changes. The editing isn’t as nifty as the haute couture. Anatol Yusef, playing Evans as the epitome of stuffed-shirt dullness, becomes a walking Wikipedia entry, hackishly enthusing: “Artie Shaw, the single greatest clarinettist the world has ever known, what a fascinating story we have here.”

As the chain-smoking and drink-swilling former southern belle, an angular, dark-haired McGovern succeeds in purveying a sardonic, snappy testiness without forfeiting our sympathy; she’s cool, shrewd and even admirable in her cynicism, arguing that men would get awards for living a life such as hers.

It’s a persuasive, if partial account, but Yusef sweats harder to make us care about Evans’s predicament, pressed by an unseen editor to fish for salacious titbits, especially about Sinatra’s legendary schlong. The play wants to have its cake and eat it in that department, expanding on how a rampant Rooney gave Gardner a lasting taste for nooky. The 90 minute affair ends with much-loved footage of the star dancing in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), seductive moves from yesteryear that McGovern poignantly mimics. A shame the rest of the evening plods.

Until April 16. Tickets: riversidestudios.co.uk

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