Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern is banking quite a bit on her Ava Gardner impression. A whole show, in fact. She’s written this uneven biographical drama as a vehicle for her talent for impersonating the raucous, sexually voracious Hollywood star. And although she nails the drawling Dustbowl accent, the script doesn’t do much to make Gardner’s story an attractive proposition.
Ava is billed as a “memory play”, a term that suggests a Tennessee Williams-esque collection of tender reminiscences, clouded over by nostalgia and regret. The reality is different. Yes, there’s some moody lighting. But there’s also a crass English journalist who’s obsessed by the size of her ex-husband Frank Sinatra’s penis. McGovern has based her story on the book of the same name, a tabloidy tome by Peter Evans that charts his conversations with the star in lurid detail. He’s desperate to get the kind of lucrative scoop that’ll keep his kids in private school. She’s obsessed with her own image, and prone to sweary 3am phone calls and trenchant monologues about her bladder.
The story is structured as a series of conversations between this unlikeable pair. “I made a mess of my life but I never made jam,” says Gardner at one point. She lacks Mae West’s talent for an epigram. But what she’s getting at is that she’s always been original, with the courage to follow her heart into three passionate, short-lived marriages with three of Hollywood’s biggest names: Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. She’s candid about her abortions, her once-a-day sexual appetites, and about the physical consequences of the stroke that nearly ended her career.
Director Gaby Dellal’s production intercuts these reminisces with projected video footage of Gardner’s heyday: a famous dance scene from the 1954 film Barefoot Contessa recurs, showing her swinging her hips mesmerically to a low drum beat. Gardner knew 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, well, pretty much anything else about Gardner and her journey through Hollywood’s golden age.
It’s an inevitable consequence of McGovern’s choice to adapt a book that’s essentially a lurid tell-all in the Nineties tabloid tradition. And the more McGovern tries to twist her source material into a more high-minded form, the less successful this play is. At points, Anatol Yusef morphs from bluff journalist into Gardner’s various lovers: it’s horribly awkward to watch. This play just doesn’t have the depth to become a psychodrama about how relationship dynamics repeat and ripple through time, or about how men use Gardner’s sexuality to control her. The dance scenes are similarly unsuccessful – less Hollywood glamour, more prosecco-addled auntie and uncle slowdancing at a wedding disco.
As the story progresses, the lavish set design by 59 Productions ingeniously makes the real world of Gardner’s apartment fall away, to be replaced by the clinical white of a film set (or perhaps, an afterlife). Money has clearly been spent. But a sense of real narrative progress needs to come from the story, not the scenery. Ultimately, it feels like a feeble, oddly bitter attempt to capture the lustre of a star who’s already fading from cultural memory.
‘Ava: The Secret Conversations’ runs at Riverside Studios until 16 April