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Theatre Review: Elizabeth McGovern is a haunting Ava Gardner

The Downton Abbey actress shows Gardner, rather than keeps telling us about her, writes TIM WALKER

Elizabeth McGovern as Hollywood legend Ava Gardner in Ava. Photo: Marc Brenner

Ava
Riverside Studios, London, until April 16

It’s not easy capturing fading Hollywood grandeur, but Elizabeth McGovern – the Downton Abbey actress – makes a fair stab at it in Ava.

Early on in the play, her character wearily intones that she’s “so fucking tired of being Ava Gardner”. She must, however, give one last performance for her biographer, Peter Evans – played by Anatol Yusef – as she needs the cash to pay her mortgage and her biographer has the late, great literary agent Ed Victor on his back. He is obsessed with Gardner talking about her former lover Frank Sinatra’s epically large penis as he reckons that will sell books.

As anyone who has read Star Turns can attest, I’ve done my fair share of celebrity interviews. I also know what it’s like working for Victor. While he’s only a hectoring voice at the other end of a phone in this show, his ruthless
commercialism, the milieu, pressures and ridiculousness of this world are communicated authentically enough.

Evans doubles up as the great actress’s three husbands – Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra, with the bandleader Artie Shaw sandwiched between them – and shows himself to be an actor of some versatility. It helps the atmosphere, too, to have old black and white footage of Rooney and Sinatra with the latter belting out a few of his big numbers.

As Gardner, McGovern is on fine form. She has the drawl absolutely right as she puffs away on endless cigarettes and lugubriously looks back on her lives and loves. Imperiously unaware of the ravages of time, she assumes Evans is gay when he initially fails to respond to her kiss.

The format of a journalist talking to a well-known character is well-worn in drama, and, all too often, it’s no more than an excuse for vast swathes of
Wikipedia to be regurgitated. This is a lot more than that – McGovern shows Gardner, rather than keeps telling us about her – and there is a haunting, unspoken sadness in her performance.

It’s no wonder Gardner was worried about money as living at 34 Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge – her primary residence from 1968 until her death in 1990 – has never come cheap. Six years ago, what she called her “little London retreat” was available to rent for no less than £500,000 per year. The elegant room in which she granted Evans his interviews is beautifully recreated in Gaby Dellal’s production.

The real-life Gardner, incidentally, mainly hung around her neighbour, Charles Gray – best known as Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever – in her twilight years. When she died and journalists called on those who lived close by, he came to his door and spoke movingly about the woman he had got to know so well.

I should declare an interest as this is the venue for my own play, Bloody Difficult Women, which opens there next month. At a time when other theatres are largely reviving old plays and musicals, this one should be commended for staging new and sometimes even radical work.

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