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Ava: The Secret Conversations, starring Elizabeth McGovern, at Riverside Studios – review

The piece, also penned by McGovern, continues its run till 16 April

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Anatol Yuself (as Peter Evans) and Elizabeth McGovern (as Ava Gardner)
© Marc Brenner

Few actresses are as synonymous with old-school Hollywood glamour as Ava Gardner, and her personal life – three marriages and countless other high profile romantic intrigues – was almost as colourful and tempestuous as the plot of one of her movies. Unless you're an ardent cinephile however, you may not be aware that this one-time big screen siren ended her days financially straitened in London, suffering a couple of strokes before finally succumbing to pneumonia in 1990, aged just 67.

Although Gaby Dellal's glossy production frequently references Gardner at the height of her stardom and physical allure, in dazzling projections courtesy of 59 Productions, it is the older, frailer version that dominates this piece as she looks back on her life and loves. Inspired by British author Peter Evans's The Secret Conversations book, playwright and leading lady Elizabeth McGovern presents Ava as potty-mouthed and eccentric, with a certain cranky charm, a commendable lack of self-pity and, perhaps most surprisingly given how universally lusted-after she was, a touching modesty.

It's just a shame that the script never truly catches dramatic fire. Occasionally, Gardner and her would-be biographer (played with a quietly compelling detachment by Anatol Yusef) lose their tempers and start bawling at each other, but each time the tension subsides with unfeasible haste, and the soporific thrum of biographical information and name dropping continues. The abusive nature of Gardner's relationship with director Howard Hughes is talked about, as is the court case between Peter Evans and Ava's third husband Frank Sinatra, but they, like other potentially fascinating points of reference, are dutifully laid out with little to nothing in the way of new insights or perspectives, like so much box ticking.

If McGovern seems airy where Ava Gardner was more earthy, there is a pleasing physical resemblance between the two women, and McGovern conveys with impressive detail the withered physicality and mercurial mood swings of the double stroke survivor; she's also convincing as the youthful Ava in numerous flashback sequences. Arguably, Yusef has the more difficult role, unenviably tasked with morphing from Evans into other such recognisable figures as Sinatra and husband #1, Mickey Rooney, before our very eyes. He does some creditable transformation but can't disguise the wilfully clichéd nature of the writing.

Dellal's over-complicated staging is long on style but short on substance. The use of sliding black screens to effect zooms in and out, jump cuts, tracking shots, etc. is highly effective and appropriate for a play about the cinema business, giving the genuine impression of watching a film onstage, but becomes tedious as the 100-minute, interval-free evening wears on and on…and on… The aforementioned projections frequently delight the eye but showing the original Ava Gardner at her most astonishing threatens to completely upstage the live actors and script.

As a portrait of a star from a bygone era, Ava: The Secret Conversations is efficient, if occasionally ponderous (at one point Evans claims to be in love with the film star, but there is so little foreshadowing of this that the effect is more head-scratching than heart-catching). As a meditation on celebrity and mortality, it's blithely unoriginal.