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Elizabeth McGovern finds Ava Gardner dredging her past for her autobiography


BWW Review: AVA: THE SECRET CONVERSATIONS, Riverside Studios Set a movie star to catch a movie star? With Elizabeth McGovern playing Ava Gardner, that's the plan and it succeeds - to some extent at least.

We're in the late 80s and film star (and she was a HUGE star) Ava Gardner is in London, recovering from a stroke and needing money. She hires Peter Evans, a journalist who shares an equally fractious, if somewhat different, history with Frank Sinatra, to ghost her autobiography. It's a book that she would like to see set a few records straight, but the publishers would prefer to see stand up (as t'were) salacious gossip about Frank and others. We're witness to the conversations that provided the foundations for the text (interestingly, not published in Ava's lifetime).

Director, Gaby Dellal, has a lot of fun with designers, 59 Productions, creating a space that contracts and expands as if one were looking through a viewfinder, the means by which millions looked upon Ava of course. Video projections also work well in evoking different times in Ava's life, as she mines her route from naive North Carolina starlet to Hollywood heartthrob, ever shakier memories slowly emerging. (We also get to see some clips of Ava in the movies and in paparazzi shots - inevitably we want more).

With all that going on, McGovern could be easily swamped on the wide stage, but she isn't - like Ava, she's also been a star from her teen years and she knows how to capture an audience and hold them. Anatol Yusef isn't so fortunate, but he's not really to blame. Asked not just to play Evans, he must also assume the identities of the men (well, some of them) in Ava's life. What we gain in understanding how their relationship begins to mirror all Ava's relationships with men, we lose in the time it takes us to recognise that it's not Evans, but Sinatra speaking, or Mickey Rooney or Artie Shaw. Ah, we think, but we're flipped straight back to Evans.

And these men are the problem with the play, somewhat surprisingly so, as McGovern wrote it and is clearly sympathetic to Ava. It's curious then that we never quite see Ava as a rounded person - she's always refracted through the lens of husbands and lovers. Whether it's Rooney's infidelity, Shaw's mansplaining, Howard Hughes's eccentricities or Sinatra's volcanic temperament, Ava is never more than second lead in her own story, too frequently the passive victim, too infrequently the protagonist.

Sure, amidst a tad too much exposition, we get a inkling of her charisma and presence and her intelligence is revealed by some cutting aperçus, but as to how she created a unique life and then navigated seas that drowned many of her contemporaries, we're left largely ignorant. We learn little beyond what we already knew - Ava could sell cinematic sex like few before or since and made some bad choices for husbands. There must have been more to it than that though, surely?

Ava: The Secret Conversations is at the Riverside Studios until 16 April

Photo Marc Brenner

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