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Photo credit: Ava: The Secret Conversations (Photo by Marc Brenner)

'Ava: The Secret Conversations' review — Elizabeth McGovern's well-intentioned biographical play lacks grit

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Elizabeth McGovern wrote and stars in this two-hander, which was timed to open 32 years to the day since the movie legend Ava Gardner died of pneumonia in London at the too-young age of 67. But far from functioning as an act of impassioned tribute or revelatory homage, Ava: The Secret Conversations rides this Hollywood star's coattails to no particular effect beyond suggesting that it won't provide the sort of career employment for McGovern that Robert Morse found with Tru or Christopher Plummer with Barrymore, to cite just two vaguely equivalent ventures out of many.

Lord knows there's material aplenty in the story of this sharecropper's daughter who went on to become a venerated screen siren and marry Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra in that order. One can certainly understand Downton Abbey's Cora Crawley, an American abroad herself, wanting to pen a stage vehicle on the back of the book that Peter Evans put together out of his various, often-tetchy encounters with Gardner - many of them phone chats that took place well into the night. (Gardner wrote a biography of her own, but Evans's book at the time was hailed as being more truthful and less manicured.)

But given changing fashions and waning attention spans, you'd certainly expect something of more substance and grit that might grab that audience today that may, alas, have zero idea who Gardner was: a story, in other words, capable of exerting its own magnetism regardless of how much familiarity an individual playgoer brings to the table. Instead, we get a glossily presented Wikipedia entry complete with enough visual reminders of Gardner herself to indicate the shortfall in McGovern's playwriting foray.

The script's structural set-up is a yawn, however tricksily presented by the director Gaby Dellal. We find Gardner nearing the end of her life at home in London, SW7, in need of money and loathe to sell her jewels. And so we find her in barbed, capricious verbal negotiation with Peter Evans, who is played by Anatol Yusef in largely reactive mode as he is impelled more than once by agent Ed Victor to get as much detail as possible about Sinatra's famously formidable — um — appendage.

Yusef, to his credit, also has to play Gardner's husbands in sequence, from the 21-year-old man-child that was Rooney at the time of his short-lived marriage to the teenage Gardner through to Sinatra, with whom she apparently established a feral connection that survived their divorce.

The elegant set and video work by 59 Productions locates us at once in Gardner's Ennismore Gardens flat and has a filmic feel - complete with closeup shots and the like - suitable to the material. Fotini Dimou, meanwhile, dresses McGovern as both sweatsuit-wearing, sweary layabout seen talking a blue streak and as the expected glamour puss whose list of friends (many of them presumably also conquests) constitutes a who's who of the 20th century.

Volatile and cantankerous, quick-witted and clearly keen-eyed, this Gardner occasionally bursts beyond the box-ticking quality of the writing to take us by surprise. But you depart the 90-minutes (no interval) none the wiser about the life or, particularly, the work of someone whose resume spanned The Killers and Show Boat all the way through to The Towering Inferno.

It's as if Gardner took the secrets promised by the play's title with her to the grave, leaving behind a well-meaning but superficial facsimile of a woman that lies beyond this production's reach.

Ava: The Secret Conversations is at Riverside Studios to 26 March. Book Ava: The Secret Conversations tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Ava: The Secret Conversations (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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