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Based on the biography completed after her death by British journalist Peter Evans, it mostly rehashes gossip about Gardner’s relationships with Mickey Rooney, Howard Hughes, bandleader Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, while vaguely celebrating her as a tough, salty dame.
To McGovern’s credit, it’s not entirely an act of vanity. She plays Gardner broke and ill in Knightsbridge, where she fetched up towards the end of her life, one arm half-curled after a stroke. Though she later dons flattering housecoats, hip-hugging baggies and tailored suits (costumes by Fotini Dimou), she’s first seen in a grey sweatsuit.
This Ava swears like a trooper, sucking down Scotch and cigarettes as she exasperates and bewitches Evans (Anatol Yusef). The character’s sardonicism suits McGovern, who always seems on the brink of a smirking eye roll, and who knows how to strike an elegant attitude. Her dustbowl North Carolina accent is so thick it must be genuine.
Money and thought have clearly been expended on the show, just not always in the wisest places. The design, by 59 Productions, using archive film, and shifting panels to change the viewing frame, frequently overpowers the script’s blend of inane exposition and overblown phrasemaking. “How did a simple farm girl become one of the greatest movie stars of all time?” asks Evans, setting things up. “I made movies, I made out, I made a mess of my life, but I never made jam,” Ava says, later. Sorry, what?
There’s hypocrisy at work here. The play purports to free Gardner from the salacious aspects of her past, while burrowing into it. When she insists on talking about her movies, your heart sinks. Meanwhile, in voice-over, Evans’s agent Ed Victor presses for details on Sinatra’s legendary appendage.
Gardner’s talents were obscured by her sensuality, her private life, and industry prejudice: by 1968, she was playing the mother of Omar Sharif, ten years her junior. McGovern was nominated for an Academy Award for her second ever film, Ragtime, in 1981, but found lasting fame aged 49 in Downton. Any interesting contrasts between the two actresses’ lives go unexplored in Gaby Dellal’s production, though.
The show’s worst idea is to have Yusef’s thickset, bullet-headed Evans morph unconvincingly into each of Ava’s lovers – a wrong-headed metaphor for the way fame warps emotion and perception. A dance routine and a stylised act of male control-freakery are the second and third worst ideas. Maybe McGovern should have hired a writer, like Gardner did.
Will anyone other than over-60s and diehard Downton fans – a Venn diagram that’s almost a circle, surely – care for a lazy portrait of a woman who died 32 years ago, and whose heyday was in the 1950s? Maybe they will. As Gardner’s story shows us, a dollop of glamour and celebrity will outperform quality work every time.
Riverside Studios, to 16 April, riversidestudios.co.uk