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Ava: Secret Conversations Review: A Flaming Hollywood Star Is Unevenly Themed By Elizabeth McGovern

Elizabeth McGovern relies quite a bit on her Ava Gardner impression in Downton Abbey. The entire show is based on her appearance. The author has written this uneven biographical drama to showcase her talent for impersonating the raucous, sexually voracious Hollywood star. Although Gardner nails the dustbowl accent well, the script doesn’t do much to make Gardner’s story compelling.

Ava is described as a “memory play,” a term suggesting a Tennessee Williams-like collection of nostalgic remembrances tinged with regret and nostalgia. However, it is very different from that. Yes, the lighting is moody. A crass English journalist is also obsessed with the size of her ex-husband Frank Sinatra’s penis. McGovern’s novel is based on the same title book by Peter Evans that charts his conversations with the star in lurid detail. He’s determined to get the kind of scoop that will keep his kids in private school. In addition, she is prone to making loud, sweary phone calls at 3 am and giving lengthy monologues about her bladder.

The story begins as a series of conversations between two unlikeable characters. Gardner says at one point, “I messed up my life, but I never made jam.” Mae West is better at epigraphs than Gardner, unfortunately. Nevertheless, she’s implying that she’s always been original, having the courage to marry three of Hollywood’s biggest stars: Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra. She is honest about her abortions, sexual appetites once a day, and the physical consequences of the stroke that nearly ended her career.

In Dellal’s production, Gardner’s reminiscences are intercut with projections of dance scenes from her heyday: a dance clip from the 1954 film Barefoot Contessa recurs. The clip shows her swinging her hips mesmerizingly to a low drum beat. Gardner was well versed in sex and sold it with skill. Even so, it is disappointing to see this story relentlessly focus on Gardner’s love life at the expense of pretty much anything else about her experiences in Hollywood’s golden age.

McGovern’s decision is an inevitable consequence of adapting a book that’s essentially a lurid tell-all in the Nineties tabloid tradition. In addition, the more McGovern tries to make this play higher-minded, the less successful it is. There are times when Anatol Yusef morphs from a bluff journalist into Gardner’s various lovers: it’s awkward to watch. The play is not deep enough to become a psychodrama about how relationships repeat and ripple through time or about how men manipulate Gardner’s sexuality. We see less Hollywood glamour and more prosecco-addled aunts and uncles dancing at wedding discos in the dance scenes.

59 Productions’ lavish set design cleverly replaces Gardner’s apartment with a clinical white film set (or perhaps an afterlife) as the plot progresses. There is a lot of money spent on the scenery. However, real narrative progress needs to come from the story, not the view. It seems like a feeble, bitter attempt to capture the luster of a star who’s already fading from cultural memory. Riverside Studios hosts’ Ava: The Secret Conversations’ until 16 April.

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